What the Robot Apocalypse Will Mean for IT, Jobs and Work

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Robots are coming, and they will eventually take many of our jobs. Before you break out the torches and pitchforks, though, think about how your skills (and, for that matter, your children's skills) can be applied to work that machines will never be able to do.

Google's huge entry into robotics leaves little doubt that we'll shortly be up to our armpits in robot alternatives to people. Robots will enter all aspects of our business and personal lives. Machines, vehicles, drones, cameras, sensors, you name it.

We've long known that privacy is a thing of the past. Could our job prospects go the same way after the robot apocalypse – and how the heck should IT prepare for all of this?

The Robopocalypse Will Be Painful

There's a book called Robopocalypse and a movie under development. The general consensus is that the jobs that most affected will be menial, low-paying ones – but this may not be the low-hanging fruit at all.  

I ran across a TekCarta piece by Andrew Sheehy responding to Mark Andreessen's Financial Times column on what jobs robots will eat. Andreessen paints a glowing future when people have better access to jobs and education and still drive creativity and innovation. More new jobs will be created than taken away, he says. Larry Page has similar thoughts: Folks will work less and have far more time to spend on wonderful things because they'll share jobs. (He glosses over the part where they'll also make far less money, likely falling under the threshold where their employers pay for medical coverage.)

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I agree with Sheehy. Andreessen's view that everything will be OK overlooks the massive pain of what will likely be an Industrial Revolution at hyper speed. Not even "creativity and innovation" jobs are safe. You should think about where your job is going, and where your kids should focus their education, so you and they don't become prematurely obsolete.

A Real Person Wrote This Headline (This Time)

It's time for a discussion about what the future will bring. It won't be world of lollipops and rainbows that Andreessen and Page will live in. The world of the rich won't apply to the rest of us. Interestingly, Google Chairman Eric Schmidt better anticipates the "jobs and robots" problem, but his solution is investing in startups, which is where we'll all work while the robots do our existing jobs.

Sure, robots already do some jobs: Assembly lines, self-driving cars, delivery drones and cleaning robots, both the consumer Roomba and larger, industrial vacuums. There's a bigger threat: Workers who basically look at numbers and draw conclusions. Robots are surprisingly good at this, too. Robots could do a range of jobs – including analysis, purchasing, consulting and journalism – because they can look at more real-time information in less time and with better recommendations than people.

This is one downside to big data analytics. Once you have the information, Watson, Siri, Cortana or any other artificial intelligence-like system can do a pretty decent job of identifying the best path. In the near term, at least, people will remain in the loop, but they'll increasingly serve as little more than quality control – and, unfortunately, won't operate fast enough to do the job properly.  

Sheehy also created a spreadsheet that ranks the jobs that robots are most and least likely to take from people. The top jobs at risk: Financial analyst, financial advisor, industrial buyer, administrator, chartered legal executive (compliance officer) and financial trader. Least at risk: Clinical embryologist, bar manager, diplomatic services officer, community arts worker, international aid worker, dancer, aid/development worker and osteopath.

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What's interesting is that jobs that focus on dealing with people are relatively safe, while jobs that focus on analyzing things aren't. Now if the people you focus on are increasingly unemployed, I have to wonder where the money's coming from to pay the salaries of the people-focused folks. (Given that folks who write about technology need an audience to consume things to pay our salaries, we shouldn't be sleeping that well, even though we aren't on the list.)

IT Departments, Jobs to Benefit From Robopocalypse?

Since so few people think about the personal impact of this automation, this is a role IT can fill. Since IT jobs are on the line as well, being a critical part of the decision matrix should provide substantial warnings about additional risk.

Those who can install, train, build, integrate and operate these new automated systems will be in high demand. Depending on the job, we have between five and 15 years to be ready for the robot apocalypse – and those who aren't ready have the greatest likelihood of being displaced.

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Implementing those automated systems won't be without pain, either. Employees will object to being displaced in large numbers. Based on past experience, the companies most aggressive with robotics are the most likely to catastrophically screw things up.  

I'd like to be able to point to several companies leading the charge, but only Google seems to be aggressively investing in robots. Google's hardly friendly to IT or to jobs, and it will present more of a problem than any type of solution. Page, based on his talk, seems to think cutting incomes massively and giving people more free time will be utopian, but it's more likely to cause riots and revolts. Google may be the most frightening technology vendor we have yet seen.

We have time, but as the market marches on, we should be realistic about our expectations. The idea that the only jobs that will be affected by robots aren't our own is simply not supported. This change promises to encompass all parts of our personal and business life. At some point, we need to get our arms around this problem. If we start now, it's less likely to hit us in the butt when we least expect it.

I'm not saying you need to run for the hills, but the robots are coming, and it's time to start thinking about what that means for you, your employees and your loved ones. Put a different way, when facing a massive global change, the folks who do the best tend to be the ones that anticipate the change.

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