The next couple of decades could (could) see some remarkable changes in the working world. With the increasing proficiency of robots, we could see the automation of many jobs currently filled by humans. In fact, according to a study by the CAANZ (Chartered Accountants Australia and New Zealand), 46 percent of all jobs in New Zealand (885,000) were in danger of automation over the next 20 years. The irony is that included in that number were 12 percent of all professional roles and that accountancy was deemed to be “high risk”. Perhaps in the future we will see CAANZ put out reports on the risk of automation written by robots…? (It sounds like something dreamt up by Douglas Adams…) 

Indeed, David Brougham, a professor in Massey University’s school of management, thinks that many of us are living in denial. He thinks that robots could put even (even!!) lawyers and accountants out of work, but that labourers, service sector workers, machinery operators and drivers were most at risk. However, when he interviewed 140 service sector staff whether they believed smarter technologies could take their jobs, 87.5 percent disagreed. (I wonder how many answered “But they could absolutely take my useless co-workers job”?)

Interestingly, Brougham makes the point that we can envisage a greater role for robots because “we have created this norm around not dealing with people”. This made me think, how many times to we really engage with the person across the counter? Smile at them? Ask them how they were doing and not mind when they actually told us? Would we actually prefer dealing with a robot who would be unfailingly polite, and not engage in small talk? 

But as the article in the Stuff website notes, many changes to the workforce have happened already without us really noticing. 

“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…

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.”

We have checkout lanes in most supermarkets that are fully automated here, and they seem to work well. And reassuringly, the supermarket chains assure us that no-one has lost their jobs because of this automation. Instead, 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.   

I think of Charlie Bucket’s dad in the Roald Dahl books, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and The Great Glass Elevator. He had a job screwing the caps on tubes of toothpaste. Then he lost his job because he was replaced by a robot who could do it faster than him. He was eventually hired back to repair the robot that replaced him. Maybe we all need to retrain as robotic technicians?

Marcus Roberts was two years out of law school when he decided that practising law was no longer for him. He therefore went back to university and did his LLM while tutoring. He now teaches contract and...