Are robots coming for our jobs?

From self-driving taxis, to drones delivering fast food, it seems like everything is becoming automated these days.

The growth of robotics will transform customer service, transportation, education and medicine

Automated restaurants like this one in China are springing up around the world. (Reuters)

From self-driving taxis, to drones delivering fast food, it seems like everything is becoming automated. Convenient? Definitely. But at what cost?

A new Forrester research report predicts that in just five years, robots will steal six per cent of U.S. jobs, forecasting that "a disruptive tidal wave will begin" by 2021. It predicts the biggest impact will occur in transportation, logistics, customer service and consumer services.

We've always known that in the future, robots will be doing many of the jobs we do today. But that future suddenly appears to be imminent. 2021 is right around the corner, and to get a sense of what jobs robots will be performing in five years, all you have to do is look at what's already happening right around us.
A group of self-driving Uber vehicles position themselves to take journalists on rides during a media preview at Uber's Advanced Technologies Center in Pittsburgh, on Sept. 12, 2016. (Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press)

Uber is currently testing self-driving cars in Pittsburgh. Select Lowe's stores are starting to roll out customer service robots that will help you find your way around the big box outlets, and Google and Chipotle are testing drone delivery of burritos at Virginia Tech.

Then there are all of our virtual assistants:  Siri, Cortana, and Alexa are the big names, but there's also a whole new generation of chatbots being integrated into all sorts of applications and tools to help with travel plans, booking meetings, finding directions.

If you've installed the latest iPhone OS update, your virtual assistant can now tell you how long it will take you to get to your next meeting based on real-time traffic and the locations in your calendar.
Humanoid robots Nao (on the left) and Pepper (on the right between the two humans) are the products of SoftBank Robotics. (Ramona Pringle)

Future shock

Change happens fast. Technology advances exponentially, not at a steady linear pace. So while we may still get frustrated when Siri is buggy or unresponsive, in five years these technologies are going to be much better at handling complex decisions and scenarios — in some cases, even better than us.

While the Forrester report pinpoints transportation and customer service as industries that are ripe for disruption, the growth of artificial intelligence and robotics will touch everything from education to medicine to the financial sector, as machines have the capability to perform tasks more efficiently and accurately than humans.
The virtual assistants on our smartphones will be much better at dealing with complex scenarios in future years. (iStockphoto)

Ajantha Ganeshalingam, founder of Wiser Investment, a Toronto-based startup that built a financial robo-adviser platform to help investors, says, "The speed of data processing, insights and analysis that can be automated is more than can be done by an adviser.  More importantly, it will make it affordable for the masses." 

While automated solutions are financially attractive for companies, the shift is understandably worrisome for the people whose jobs are at risk of being displaced by robots. So how concerned should we be?
The Smart Tissue Autonomous Robot (STAR) surgical assistant can suture soft tissue as well as human surgeons. (Children's National Health System)

There is a debate as to what impact robots will have on jobs and the economy. Some say technology is destroying jobs, where others say it is creating opportunities to think about work in a new way. At the heart of that debate is the question of whether robots will replace humans, or complement us in the work force. 

There is no doubt that a lot of the jobs that have been done by humans up to now, will be supplanted by robots or automated systems. But with every era, as our technologies have evolved, so has our relationship to work.

John Havens, author of Heartificial Intelligence: Embracing our Humanity to Maximize Machines, points out that instead of fear-mongering, what we need to be doing is figuring out how to best manage this period of transition.

Managing the transition

So how do we prepare? When it comes to identifying the skills necessary to stay competitive in a quickly changing world, one of the biggest challenges we currently face is that we don't know what we don't know.

The Future of Jobs report cites an estimate that 65 per cent of children entering primary schools today "will ultimately work in new job types and functions that currently don't yet exist." 

Skills in the STEM subjects — science, technology, engineering and math — are priorities, but we're also going to see an increased demand for people with cognitive abilities such as problem solving and creativity.

The Future of Jobs report says "many formerly purely technical occupations are expected to show a new demand for creative and interpersonal skills."

John Havens agrees, saying, "Emotional well-being and people-to-people oriented interactions" are top amongst the skills we should be developing.

"Soon the rarity of data or machine influenced interactions will make our core human traits more precious than ever before."


Ramona Pringle

Technology Columnist

Ramona Pringle is an associate professor in Faculty of Communication and Design and director of the Creative Innovation Studio at Ryerson University. She is a CBC contributor who writes and reports on the relationship between people and technology.