23.06.2016 : Gage Boon

A computer took my job

In a world where technology is challenging our need as professional service providers, are our jobs safe?

My sister is a Chartered Accountant who works for a large international consultancy. Last week, she sent me an article from Futurism that announced that BakerHostetler, an American law firm, had hired IBM’s ‘Ross’ as the world’s first artificially intelligent attorney. ‘Ross’ has been tasked with handling the firm’s bankruptcy cases. It has replaced a department that formerly employed 50 people.

Like her lawyer counterparts, my sister’s reality is that her job will likely disappear in the next 20 years – replaced by a computer which can do it faster, more accurately and at a fraction of the cost. Are engineering consultancies safe from the same fate?

When I think of robots, my mind immediately jumps to the massive, incredibly expensive machines we find in countless manufacturing plants around the world. These robots are very impressive. They are incredibly efficient at what they are designed to do, far outweighing the capabilities of even a whole team of humans. However, their range of operations is extremely limited. Step outside their designed functions and they are near useless.

With the development of artificial intelligence, the ability of robots now extends beyond these limitations. Like those we see in science-fiction movies, they can now interpret a full spectrum of human commands and perform a huge range of functions. Take IMB’s ‘Ross’ as an example. It can be asked questions in plain English.  It then reads through the entire body of law, returning a cited answer, along with topical readings, cases and sources.  This is supposed to “let you get back to being a lawyer”, but in reality it is letting lawyers get back to being unemployed.

Artificially intelligent robots are constantly being developed. The majority may be a bit slow and clunky, but so was the computer once. It is only a matter of time before they become highly sophisticated, highly functional and have the ability to replace our ‘human’ jobs.

For many manual jobs it’s already a reality. Jobs that were formerly done by humans are now being done by machines. This is a good thing, right? It no longer takes weeks and hundreds of farm hands to sow a field. Instead it takes a single farmer and a tractor a matter of days, or even hours, to do the same job. Surely that means more food for us, while freeing up some time for famers and their farm hands?

As machines become more intelligent, the issue we now face is their use beyond manual labour activities. Service jobs are already in the firing line - with the rise of self-service machines (and decline of checkout operators) in supermarkets and fast-food restaurants. Computers have largely replaced people working in administration jobs. Self-driving cars, trucks and trains will inevitably replace many people working in the transport sector. As mentioned earlier, even lawyers and accountants are succumbing to software which can outperform them.

So where will all these people go? What do you do with someone who has spent five years at law school, with a five figure student loan? How do you tell them that their expertise is no longer required? The reality is that there are simply not enough jobs in the industries unaffected by these technological changes to cope.
Today over 50% of the working population is at risk of having their job replaced by technology.

So what does the future hold for us within the professional services industry, especially within the engineering fields? It is inevitable that our roles will change as new technology is introduced. Like many other industries, it is also likely some roles may disappear entirely.

We are likely to see entry into the field becoming more competitive as people move away from other professions due to redundancies. Reliance on technology is likely to continue to rise, forcing us to learn new skills and develop new methods of solving problems.

The main advantage we have against this increasingly challenging environment is our versatility and resilience. As professionals, we are uniquely equipped to evolve as the fields we work in evolve too. It is in our DNA to be great generalists and to thrive in a challenging environment. The key is to be agile, both as a business and as individuals. We no longer have the luxury of being cautious and waiting to make decisions. Technological innovation will not wait.

Change is inevitable. It’s a necessary part of life that keeps us moving forward. Without the technological gifts that engineers have provided throughout the years, we would not have been able to build towering skyscrapers, expansive transport systems and have sophisticated computers that fit in our pockets.

As technology begins to overlap our own expertise, we should not fear this change. Instead, we must embrace it as it occurs and be decisive, constantly seeking out new ways to achieve successful outcomes for our business and clients. To stay at the forefront of the industry, we must be able to effectively adopt new technologies as they arrive and stay agile, open-minded and versatile.

My sister’s job may not exist in 20 years. Maybe our jobs face the same fate. However, she remains optimistic, confident in her ability to adapt to the challenges the future brings. We should be too.

About the Author

Gage Boon

Mechanical Engineer

Gage is a Mechanical Services Engineering with a passion for automation and the future of technology. He graduated in 2015 from a Bachelor of Engineering with Honours at the University of Auckland, specialising in Mechanical Engineering.

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