MILLIONS of Australians are destined for the unemployment queue if they don't "wake up" to the robot revolution, warns futurist Shara Evans.
Creeping automation is set to transform how we work, shop and socialise - and the changes are a lot closer than most people realise.
New research by recruitment agency Randstad reveals that 84 per cent of Australians surveyed are not concerned that automation will affect their future job prospects, while 77 per cent believe that they won't need to change careers in the next 10 years.
But the reality was the opposite, said Ms Evans, who suggested Australians "take their heads out of the sand" and wise up to the dramatic transformation that had already begun.
"The reality is that 40 per cent of current jobs in Australia won't exist in 10 to 15 years due to automation - that's five million jobs gone," she said, citing the latest report on the topic by CEDA.
"If I look at the exponential advancements in technology, it is very clear that this figure will continue to rise."
The really scary part? It's not future innovation that puts our jobs at risk, but existing technology that is available for use right now.
SALARIES WIPED OUT
A recent report by consulting firm McKinsey found that 45 per cent of the activities people are currently paid for could be automated using currently demonstrated technologies.
Robotic checkout systems are being rolled out at convenience stores in Japan, and insurance firm Fukoku Life replaced 34 of its claims assessors with robots earlier this year.
The company laid off the workers after spending $2.36 million on a computer program that calculates payouts to policyholders, a move it said would boost productivity by 30 per cent.
Fukoku Life expected to save about $1.65 million a year on salaries with the new system, meaning it would pay itself off in less than two years.
Amazon now has 45,000 robots moving products around its cavernous warehouses, an approach that has been adopted by companies like DHL Logistics as they scramble to keep up with the e-commerce giant.
Chinese e-commerce billionaire Jack Ma, the founder of Alibaba, last week predicted that even chief executives like himself would see their jobs taken over by robots.
And Volvo has predicted that driverless cars will become commercially available in the next five years, a prospect that would make taxi and Uber drivers redundant.
The rise of automation is so significant that Microsoft founder Bill Gates has called for governments to impose a "robot tax" to slow down the pace of automation - a suggestion Ms Evans said was "a nice idea", but not viable to implement.
"We are already seeing robots performing concierge tasks within the retail space, and the future workplace will see humanoid type robots with greater physical capabilities," she said.
The appeal of robots was not just their ability to do things faster than humans; in industries like agriculture or mining, Ms Evans said, they could be used to gather valuable data on ground conditions, with sensors to detect mineral deposits or analyse the bugs on crops.
And more and more businesses would start to use robots and artificial intelligence systems as they became cheaper, while skill shortages threatened to speed up the spread of the technology.
MAKE YOURSELF IRREPLACEABLE
So how can you keep your job safe from the robots?
According to Ms Evans, the key was to be aware of which aspects of your role could be automated, and look for ways to develop skills that will make you irreplaceable.
"There are certain job categories that are more prone to automation first," she said.
"If a job is a lot of predictable, repetitive behaviour and a fairly low cost to implement automation to replicate that labour, those are the kinds of jobs that are likely to be affected first."
Next on the list were jobs involving data processing and data collection, both of which could be easily replaced by artificial intelligence - like the Japanese insurance company mentioned above.
Even those people lucky enough to stay employed would likely find their job descriptions changing, Ms Evans said.
"If you've got someone who used to just analyse data and is not really doing a whole lot of social interaction, and that task has been subsumed by an AI bot, their job role might take on more of a customer-centric focus," she said.
"But that particular individual may not be suited to move into the more customer-centred focus because of their innate personality."
Emotional intelligence, strategic planning, social and creative skills would remain in demand, she said.
WINNERS AND LOSERS
The impact of the changes would depend on how well they had prepared. Ms Evans said.
"For somebody that has their head in the sand and they find their job has been replaced by automation, and they haven't bothered to look at what else they're good at reskilling, those changes would be pretty devastating," she said.
But on the flip side, young Australian who kept their finger on the pulse would be the first to benefit from the "amazing possibilities of future job roles that aren't even invented yet", Ms Evans said, citing fields such as genetic research, bionics and 3D printing as likely growth areas.
"They might look at 3D printing and realise how many different materials are being used and become a materials expert, or learn how to program and design robots - or become an expert on integrating them into the workforce," she said.
"There's just so many new job possibilities that the technology will open up. Yes, jobs will disappear, but new ones will be created; you've just got to make sure that you've got the skill sets to step into those roles."
WHAT SHOULD YOU DO
• Do a skills inventory to understand what you are good at and what you want to do.
• If your job does change, what other kinds of jobs would you enjoy doing? Where do they sit in the spectrum of automation?
• Ask yourself how your skill set fits in with the jobs market and, if you need additional skills, take proactive measures to gain them.
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