How safe is your industry from a robot takeover?

6 Sep, 2017

If you go to most well-known takeaway food chains in the United States, there’s a good chance you’ll see machines doing what cashiers and packers do. Or you’ve experienced this at cinemas where self-booking terminals now outnumber the humans at the counters. Automation is on the rise, from robotic machinery in factories to autonomous connected devices, such as a screen with a scale serving as a pay point in your local supermarket.

This automation brings the question of what jobs will likely be replaced as Artificial Intelligence (AI) becomes more pervasive?

Jobs in decline
The prospects of entry level positions in retail are in trouble, with on the floor positions being more likely to be filled with service kiosks, electronic cashiers or pay points. Bank tellers will probably also be in short demand and it’s largely expected that positions in the manufacturing and construction industries will yield to machines controlled by AI software.

According to consulting firm McKinsey, those jobs characterized by routine and predictable physical activity, as well as those entailing data processing and collection, are most susceptible to being automated. This means professions which require processing large chunks of data, are likely in for a change. This includes accountants, insurance agents, and lawyers.

Research by Deloitte has asserted that 100 000 legal roles will be automated over the next two decades, with automation expected to profoundly change the face of the legal profession, although not eradicating the need for lawyers altogether.

The challenge with automation
Replacing people with robots is expensive and can take years to implement. A further consideration may be the cultural context. For example, just because self-driving cars could feasibly replace Uber or taxi drivers, doesn’t mean they necessarily will in South Africa, particularly given the cultural entrenchment of taxis at present.

Which careers are safe?
On the flip side, jobs that focus on applying expertise, dealing with unpredictable physical activity, significant hands on contact (like nursing, therapy, hairdressing) and managing others, are the least likely to be easily replaced in the near future. Also remaining for the foreseeable future are creative professions, teachers and healthcare workers.

The jury is still out though on whether creative career paths and those focusing on liberal arts may actually be the safest for the current generation of college students. The consensus however, seems to be that workers would be best advised to cultivate a broader skillset or develop deep expertise in a skill that’s unpredictable.

The good news is that the rollout of automation is still in its early stages globally. In South Africa, it will still be some years before we can expect to see a major restructuring of industries. This gives businesses more time and space to adapt, to learn from the missteps and solutions that developed nations experience, and to change accordingly. As a country we can’t be complacent, particularly with regards to equipping the youth with skills that will still be relevant in the years to come.