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Robotics and AI: A threat or friend to technology teams?

22/01/20

An overwhelming 76% of people believe robots or AI devices could replace them at work, or at least do 50% of their job. While this is not entirely unreasonable to think, it suggests that our workforce may be experiencing tunnel vision - focusing on the negative impacts that AI and robotics will have rather than seeing the potential it will unlock for them.

In truth, technology will claim a lot of tasks and this will affect employees in all sectors, some more than others. Thankfully, within the technology sector, AI will allow professionals to become more creative, upskill and reduce the monotony of their job. To do so, technology professionals must exhibit adaptability and consider how they can collaborate with robotics and AI.

Robotics and AI are a threat to some, but not all

McKinsey predicts that 49% of tasks completed by the global workforce have the potential to be automated. One of the reports key takeaways is that robotics and AI are expected to automate 49% of activities, but not the entire job - currently very few jobs could be entirely transferred to robots. The first technology jobs we’d expect to become automated are ticket routing and data entry, but that still leaves data protection, IT analysis, cloud services and many more roles safe from being automated any time soon.

The report lists ‘accommodation and food services’ tasks as most likely to become automated with a likelihood of 73%, ‘finance and insurance’ tasks gain a score of 43% while ‘information’ ranks far lower at a likelihood of just 36%. Assuming this assessment to be correct, only a third of information-based activities will fall into the hands of robots. The tasks less likely to be reassigned to robots are those requiring interaction with stakeholders, the use of judgment to make decisions, delegation and creativity. The broad spectrum of these activities reassures us that most jobs will remain in human hands, but the question remains - how will robotics and AI impact the workload of technology jobs?

Time will tell

The pace of technological development is exponential: in just five years the cost of a lab-grown meat-free burger dropped from £215,000 to £8. However, when it comes to AI and automation it will be decades before we begin to see the full potential. PwC quantifies this view, reporting that only 3% of jobs risk becoming automated in the early years of this decade, but that jumps to 30% by the mid-2030s. Currently, technology can outperform humans regarding information retrieval, large-scale motor skills and optimisation but we’re only just understanding the emerging applications of AI as it becomes more sophisticated.

According to McKinsey, one factor that will delay the adoption of AI in the workplace is the “cost of developing and deploying”. While there is a relatively high possibility of restaurant jobs becoming automated, the decision will depend on the costs associated, considering cooks in the UK earn an hourly wage of £7.83 on average. Therefore, it may not be cost-effective for some time to replace kitchen staff with robotics or AI, at least until the price of this technology drops below the cost of labour.

Now consider the technology sector where general IT staff earn £21.81 hourly and this rate rises significantly for managerial roles and architects. It becomes more appealing to replace employees in roles where there is a higher labour cost associated, but don’t forget that information tasks are less likely to become automated. So, though the threat of robotics and AI to technology jobs may appear real, there is still ample time for professionals to adjust to the changes.

How robotics and AI will reshape jobs within technology

A recent Deloitte report found that 82% of large UK companies are adopting AI yet just 15% are ‘seasoned’ implementors. The rapid pace at which technology is developing is creating an AI skills gap. Evidently, this is not a threat but an opportunity for IT professionals.

Though, as AI becomes more sophisticated, its role will transition from simple automation to software development. Companies such as Data Robot and H2O.ai have matured their AI tools so they can write code - a task that just years ago we thought was far too complex for a machine to perform, but the introduction of bottom-up AI helped it become a reality. While top-down AI aims to pre-programme a machine with every layer of human cognition, bottom-up trains technology to build complex understanding from a foundation of simple methods. The good news is that using this approach, AI software - such as TabNine - can now suggest possible endings for code and thereby boost a developer’s productivity. This just one example of how AI can be used to reduce monotony and free up time for technology professionals.

What can a robot do that you can do better?

Robotics and machine have their limits, though they are closing the gap when it comes to particular skills, and in some instances, they are outperforming us on tasks where we naively thought we’d always have the upper hand. Technology professionals must demonstrate to stakeholders and upper management their ability to navigate and direct within the dynamic technology landscape. To do so they must identify which aspects of their role are easily automatable, then innovate the process. In the face of automation, technology professionals have the chance to take actions that will influence the future of their company and become more valuable employees than ever.

Working with robots and not against

Collaboration is key here. Those who learn how AI can transform their work and use it to their advantage will earn the most valuable technology jobs. It is an opportunity for programmers, software developers and project managers to upskill and reduce the monotony of their work. In light of the changes that are taking place, technology professionals must become technology advisors, learn to speak the language of robots and, most importantly, nurture workplace relationships.

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