Robots could threaten up to half New Zealand's jobs in next 20 years video

Alastair Walsh

We, for one, welcome our new robot overlords.

They're always polite, they never take leave, and they've become pretty good at vacuuming.

With the right algorithms, robots could even put lawyers and accountants out of work, a Massey University professor says.

But many of us are in denial, thinking that day will never come, according to David Brougham, from the university's school of management.

Twendy-One, a robot designed to help the elderly and disabled people around the house, demonstrates carrying a food tray.
REUTERS

Twendy-One, a robot designed to help the elderly and disabled people around the house, demonstrates carrying a food tray.

Labourers, service sector workers, and machinery operators or drivers are among those at the highest risk of being replaced by automation.

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Yet, when Brougham asked about 140 service sector staff whether they believed smarter technologies could take their jobs, 87.5 per cent of them disagreed.

Transport Minister Simon Bridges tests a driverless car at Google X in Mountain View, California.
SUPPLIED

Transport Minister Simon Bridges tests a driverless car at Google X in Mountain View, California.

A recent study by Chartered Accountants Australia and New Zealand (Caanz) found 46 per cent of New Zealand jobs were at risk of automation over the next two decades. That's 885,000 jobs, in all sectors.

"I think we are doing this to ourselves, in a way," Brougham said. "We have created this norm around not dealing with people."

The Caanz study found about 12 per cent of professional roles faced the chopping block. Accountancy was deemed to be high risk, and Caanz described it as a "wake-up call" for the profession to adapt.

Robot company Boston Dynamics has developed a new version of its humanoid robot, Atlas, which can walk in snow, pick up ...
GOOGLE

Robot company Boston Dynamics has developed a new version of its humanoid robot, Atlas, which can walk in snow, pick up objects and drive.

"The ability of many professions, including accounting, to survive will depend on their ability to successfully combine a range of skill-sets, including technical knowledge, critical business thinking, strategic insight and relationship management," the study stated. 

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Brougham said: "Often jobs actually consist of a set of repetitive actions that can be codified and done by a robot, [including] many jobs currently considered high-skill, like accountants, lawyers and researchers.

"The lawyer one for me is the most interesting, because if you feed [information] through a word finder and it finds key words, the case could be cracked."

He was optimistic about new jobs being created by the rise of technology, such as digital media analysts, but predicted "huge displacement" of people in the workplace. "[A] large number of jobs may disappear."

Regionally, those who work in Wellington are at the lowest risk of being replaced by robots, with about 95,500 jobs at risk of becoming automated, while West Coast employees faced the greatest risk.

New Zealand Caanz head Kirsten Patterson believed accounting would exist well into the future.

David Brougham from Massey University's school of management. He says many jobs currently considered high-skill could be ...
SUPPLIED

David Brougham from Massey University's school of management. He says many jobs currently considered high-skill could be done by robots, including lawyers, accountants and researchers.

"Accounting is not just about numbers. Modern-day chartered accountants have an all-round skill set which includes business knowledge, insights and ethics.

"Technology can't match that."

Law Society president Kathryn Beck said artificial intelligence was already being used in the profession to assist with basic legal precedents and research, but lawyers still needed to feed in the information.

She did not believe lawyers' jobs were at risk. It was just a matter of technology changing the nature of the job.

A robot could never pick up on interpersonal nuance, and lawyers dealt with problems that required human rapport which were far more complex than robots could handle. 

IT'S HAPPENING ALREADY

We have self-service checkouts, robots that help around the house, and three that clean Auckland Airport.

At least four states in the United States have passed legislation allowing driverless cars, and Japan expects to have them on the road in time for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

In the hospitality sector, Carl's Jr chief executive Andy Pudzer has said he wants to try fully automated restaurants, where customers never see a person, in an effort to deal with rising minimum wages. 

"If you're making labour more expensive, and automation less expensive, this is not rocket science," he told Business Insider.

"[Machines] are always polite, they always upsell, they never take a vacation, they never show up late, there's never a slip-and-fall, or an age, sex, or race discrimination case."

In 2007, a four-fingered robot called Twendy-One was revealed in Japan, designed to help the elderly and disabled people around the house. Its human-sized four-fingered hands are capable of picking up and holding delicate objects without crushing them.

In the US, doctors recently published a paper that proved a robot-doctor can now finish performing a surgery on its own – although it's still restricted to pig skin.

Boston Dynamics created the robot Atlas to perform complex search and rescue tasks in dangerous environments. It can now climb, drive and remove debris.

However, despite the rise of self-service checkouts, supermarket chains Foodstuffs and Progressive Enterprises both say they haveno plans to go fully automated, and that no staff have lost their jobs as a result of automation.

"In our experience, if any staff have been affected by a reduction in full-service checkouts, they've been redeployed within their store to other customer service roles," Foodstuffs spokeswoman Antoinette Laird said.

BY THE NUMBERS

885,000 or 46 per cent: jobs at risk of automation in the next two decades

$1.4 trillion: economic impact expected from driverless cars
3: robots employed as cleaners at Auckland Airport

Source: Future Inc, Caanz, October 2015.

 - Stuff

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