Ever since the personal computer became mainstream and the mass-production of robots in the workforce happened, people have been wary of the rise of the machine. Films like The Terminator haven’t particularly helped in snuffing the fires of worry, despite clear differences.
The Terminator features robots hell-bent on killing everyone and everything on the planet, while the fears of society revolve more around the deaths of jobs. However, it’s important to know that there won’t be a leather-clad Arnold Schwarzenegger riding a motorcycle and brandishing a shotgun. It’s a lot more avoidable than that.
The first thing that needs to be understood is that it will happen. Robots in the workforce are already here and becoming more common year on year. Places like vehicle manufacturing or freezing works are already automated, and are continuing to employ the services of robots and computers to ensure everything is done efficiently and to code.
Frances Valintine, founder of Tech Futures Lab in Auckland, realises this. She runs 10-week courses designed to rearm people with skills they need to be agile in the face of the job-market upheaval. Speaking with her on the topic of job volatility and impending automation, she asserts that New Zealanders are slow to adjust. She has dealt with hundreds of companies both nationwide and globally and none of them have any reward systems for innovation. Silicon Valley, for example, regularly reward innovation, progressiveness, experimentality and technical skills. Here, everything is focused on the return to the shareholders, the bottom line.
According to a 2015 study by the New Zealand Institute of Economic Research, 46% of New Zealand jobs are at risk of automation over the next two decades.
You might think that it’s just the menial factory-based jobs that are at risk from automation, but according to Frances it is the professionals that are also at risk. Recently, there was the first instance we’ve seen of an AI (artificial intelligence) as a lawyer – ROSS. The problem with AI lawyers at present is that judges, other lawyers, defendants, everyone in a courtroom speaks in everyday language, not columns and rows. This presents translation issues, something ROSS’s creators said was the biggest challenge in the AI’s creation. But it was overcome, and now ROSS is a “new hire” at firm Baker and Hostetler, who handle bankruptcy cases.
Several other firms have signed licences to use ROSS’s services as well. The main problem is that New Zealanders have a warped view of how innovative we are. “We’re afraid to say ‘I don’t know what I don’t know’ and relearn, or take a hit and reinvest in something that’s more futureproof.”
It’s strange. If we go against the flow and say something negative about our country, we’re relagated to a naysayer, and nothing more. Warnings are not heeded because they do not comply with our idyllic view of ourselves. Frances agrees, saying that we have a “complete delusion of grandeur… In the top ten most innovative countries, eight of them have 10 million people or less. Small countries should do better, but we fall every year.” Why?
A big problem we face is reluctance to change. We see the competition not changing and think “why should I change if they aren’t, and they’re still making money?” It’s an outdated way of thinking. We are afraid of taking that step into the void, the unknown. We fear change, and yet that chasm of change is where innovation happens. By fearing and avoiding change, we avoid innovation.
So what can you do? Well, the first step comes with re-teaching yourself. If you’re a business owner or simply a worried employee, the best thing you can do first is to learn again. It’s never too late to learn, that’s part of what makes us human. When we stop learning – or refuse to continue learning – we deny a part of ourselves that is fundamental in moving ourselves forward. While technology can be a scary thing, it has also opened vast amounts of opportunities.
Working from home is now easier than ever before thanks to the internet, and that web of knowledge also allows us to learn new skills for free. They might not carry the credence of a diploma or degree, or even a certificate, but they allow you to have a go at something new at the cost of nothing but time. Or, think like Bigweld from the 2005 film Robots: “See a need, fill a need!” It took Marriott 88 years to get 697,000 rooms. It took AirBNB only 4 years to hit 650,000. So while traditional jobs may be fading, opportunity is still there. It just might be a little harder to see than before.
By relearning and rearming ourselves, the jobs that will be lost to automation and disruption do not necessarily have to lead to unemployment and global catastrophe. Instead, new, specialist jobs will open up. For example, Microsoft say they have 1.5 million openings in cybersecurity alone. That’s one company, and one area of specialism. Imagine how many possibilities there are globally! Combine this with the entrepreneurial opportunities not unlike the mindset of the people behind AirBNB and the world can still be your oyster.
It’s normal to fear the unknown. That’s why it’s scary. We fear what we don’t know. But we don’t need to. There are a myriad of ways to counter the slowly advancing wave of automation, and a lot actually involve technology. We can use technology to gain an upper hand against technology. Ultimately, the doomsday of automation might not be as doom-and-gloom as it may seem.
Frances Valintine is one of the world’s top 50 education innovators, according to the Makers and Shakers of Education Technology Index. She is the founder of The Mind Lab and Tech Futures Lab (in partnership with Unitec Insitute of Technology). Tech Futures Lab prepares business people for the future through professional development programmes ranging from 1-day workshops, to week-long modules and 10-week full-time programmes.