In 2013, the University of Oxford published a report predicting 47% of jobs in the U.S could be at risk of automation in the next 15 years.
According to leading AI scientist and member of ACS’ Artificial Intelligence Committee, Professor Toby Walsh, this report became the “granddaddy” of the automation concerns that have become so rife in the past five years.
From the Committee for Economic Development of Australia saying in 2015 that 40% of local jobs could be automated by 2030 to McKinsey’s 2018 report which predicted up to 800 million global jobs could soon be gone, automation predictions paint a bleak picture for the future of human work.
“One thing I think is clear,” Walsh told the Senate Select Committee on the Future of Work and Workers in Sydney. “We don't know how many jobs will be created by new technologies and how many jobs will be created by the increasing prosperity that new technologies bring.
“Maybe there will be fewer jobs. Maybe there will be more jobs. We do not know.”
What we do we know is that certain types of work are more susceptible to automation than others.
Repetitive, systematic and predictable job areas, such as manufacturing, transport and manual labour are at risk.
While less frequent, there is also discussion on the possibility of automation within services such as law and accountancy.
However, Walsh warned of the long-term risks that automation could have on these particular sectors.
“With respect to accountants and lawyers, a lot that they do is actually quite systematic and regular; it's not actually that out of the ordinary,” he said.
“Are the law firms going to continue to hire lots of clerks at the bottom?
“How are people going to get into the bottom rung of the profession if those jobs are the ones that are most easily automated?”
But even within the human facing industries that are seen as ‘safe’, such as healthcare, certain professions remain exposed.
“I wouldn't encourage any of my children to spend lots of time becoming a radiologist,” Walsh told the committee.
“That's a task where we're going to get a machine to work out how to read X-rays much more quickly, much more cheaply, much better and much more accurately than a human can do, so that very skilled job is probably going to disappear.”
Walsh explained that the entire healthcare system will begin to transition away from treatment towards preventative care, meaning general practitioners remain in strong demand.
“At the end of the day, I think we want to have a human doctor tell us the bad news and help us interpret the results of all those machines and algorithms, so I don't think doctors have to worry, but I think probably we'll end up with many more GPs.”
As the threat of automation becomes increasingly real, solutions on how to mitigate decreasing full-time employment opportunities have begun to emerge.
Senior lecturer at Macquarie University, Dr Ben Spies-Butcher, believes changes to the income support system protect workers who face the threat of being automated.
He discussed the idea of a universal basic income as a way to ensure that each citizen has a regular payment to meet their basic needs, whether they are impacted by automation or not.
“We agree that technology is unlikely to see an end to paid work,” he said. “But it is changing the way that paid work works.”
Pointing to trials of basic income models that are already in place around the world, Spies-Butcher explained that implementing such a system in Australia is completely feasible.
“Our initial modelling suggests that you could roll it out for the entire work-age population from 18 to the retirement age for less than the cost of the current housing and superannuation tax concessions, and at a rate above the current Newstart rate.”
He also suggested that providing economic stability for young people entering into the workforce could help could help influence decision-making.
“Late teenagers who are expecting to be able to receive this payment, might adjust their own behaviour if they knew that they had some kind of real economic security underneath them when they were starting to engage in questions of further education and work.”
Professor Walsh also showed his support for a “cooperative model”, that protects the entire workforce.
“We should think about how we can encourage it, because certainly one of the trends that we see is that inequality is increasing within our society, and technology, if left to its own course, will amplify that further, so we do have to think of ways that the prosperity needs to be shared more greatly; otherwise we will see increasing societal disquiet.”