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Reskilling or deskilling: the advance of the robotic digital age

There has been a recent spate of articles in the press predicting that rise of the robots will take over from humans. This is of course the stuff of science fiction, but there have been other voices that are more considered and perhaps more concerning. These predict that many skills and jobs will be taken by computerisation and robots.

“The upcoming digital age may cause more upheaval than previous technological revolutions as it is happening faster than before and is fundamentally changing the way we live and work. Technology in the 21st century is enabling the automation of tasks once thought quintessentially human: cognitive tasks involving subtle and non-routine judgment. Through big data, the digitisation of industries, the Internet of Things and industrial and autonomous robots, the world around us is changing rapidly as is the nature of work across occupations, industries and countries. Although we can’t predict exactly which jobs will be affected, we do have a reasonably good idea about the type of tasks computers will be able to perform in the near future. Based on this, Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael Osborne predict that 47% of the US workforce is at high risk of automation as a result of these trends and low-income and low-skill jobs are now, for the first time, most likely to be automated.”

I would suggest that you check your own career or skill set against the predictions in this report – Technology at Work: The Future of Innovation and Employment. It could be a sobering thought! For example at the top of the list as least likely to be replaced by computerisation are Recreational Therapists. At the bottom of the extensive list are Telemarketers.

An earlier report attempted to predict which professions will no longer require humans and what new types of skills will be required I have summarised this in Table 1 at the end of this post.

The skills that cannot easily be replaced – the so called computerisation bottleneck – will be skills in three main areas:

  1. Perception and Dexterity
    For example, gardeners working in small parks or gardens will not easily be replaced, though in agriculture large machines for ploughing, planting and harvesting will replace most human labour.
  2. Creative Intelligence
    It is predicted that in the legal profession the legal secretary will be increasingly replaced by automated filing, searching, retrieving suites of software, though the actual lawyer will still be required.
  3. Social Intelligence
    Computers will be able to simulate social intelligence but the human customer will continue to prefer interaction with other humans, or at least it is hoped. So hair dressers will still exist.

We will see the proliferation of computing devices in the Internet of Things, so that all walks of life will be networked, communicated with and controlled. This is now starting with the “Nest Learning Thermostat!” for home central heating systems.

It is predicted that the skills that will be in demand are those who can build, control, and maintain computers. Which is why teaching Computer Science at schools should be a very important step in the development of an individual’s career path and also contribute to the competitiveness of the country that educated them.

TABLE I – O*NET variables that serve as indicators of bottlenecks to computerisation

Computerisation bottleneck

O*NET Variable

O*NET Description

Perception and Manipulation

Finger Dexterity

The ability to make precisely coordinated movements of the fingers of one or both hands to grasp, manipulate, or assemble very small objects.

Manual Dexterity

The ability to quickly move your hand, your hand together with your arm, or your two hands to grasp, manipulate, or assemble objects.

Cramped Work Space, Awkward Positions

How often does this job require working in cramped work spaces that requires getting into awkward positions?

Creative Intelligence

Originality

The ability to come up with unusual or clever ideas about a given topic or situation, or to develop creative ways to solve a problem.

Fine Arts

Knowledge of theory and techniques required to compose, produce, and perform works of music, dance, visual arts, drama, and sculpture.

Social Intelligence

Social Perceptiveness

Being aware of others’ reactions and understanding why they react as they do.

Negotiation

Bringing others together and trying to reconcile differences.

Persuasion

Persuading others to change their minds or behavior.

Assisting and Caring for Others

Providing personal assistance, medical attention, emotional support, or other personal care to others such as coworkers, customers, or patients.