Are robots really going to take our jobs?

Despite endless headlines around so-called "robot anxiety" - and a recent US study that suggested half of US jobs could be automated by technology that already exists - an expert says the threat is being exaggerated.

"It is true that some jobs will be automated, however just because a job can be automated does not mean it will be," said Dr David Tuffley, a lecturer in applied ethics and socio-technical studies at Australia's Griffith University.

"For social, political and economic reasons, employers will decide to keep humans doing jobs, perhaps being assisted in the background by artificial intelligence (AI)."

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Tuffley expected the kinds of jobs that would become automated were those dirty, dangerous, remote and low-status roles that employers had difficulty finding people to do.

The logistics industry, particularly, was likely to be impacted by progress in the "additive manufacturing" field, or 3D printing ​technologies.

"When I need a replacement remote for my TV, it would be cheaper, faster and more sustainable to print one out rather than have someone manufacture a minimum batch of 10,000 then have it transported many thousands of kilometres to me.

"Ironically, it is the robots in those distant factories that will be put out of work."

Other occupations at immediate risk included truck drivers and taxi drivers - autonomous vehicle technology was now mature enough to be used large-scale.

How humans would still make a living in a robot-dominated workforce has been keenly debated - some economists have even suggested a general basic income for all.

Tuffley said social attitudes were constraining development, but these would change.

"How? By manufacturers installing more and more autonomous features like adaptive cruise control, lane keeping and parking-assist - and people will use them, like them and come to rely on them.

"Then there will be a button you can press for full autonomy and people will wonder how they ever got along without it."

Being able to relate to AI that we would eventually interact with daily was also a challenge.

"As many robots will be commercially based, user-friendliness is of paramount importance for success.

"I read that screen-writers and poets who used to work in the film and TV industry in LA have moved north to San Francisco where they now create really interesting and likeable personas for the AI devices currently being developed by the big tech companies.​"

Another hurdle he foresaw was achieving "true general intelligence" in AI - being as capable of adapting to unpredictable environmental conditions the way human intelligence can.

"We are still likely to be decades away from this - some experts predict around 50 years - some more, some less, the fact is nobody really knows."

Currently, the world has good specific AI that can efficiently do one job, such as constructing a car, but little else.

That could change with work underway by Microsoft and Cambridge researchers, who are aiming to create AI so advanced it could write its own code.

But Tuffley said any rise of the machines was nothing to fear.

​"Some experts who should know better create fear by painting Terminator-like scenarios where the robots decide to kill all the humans because we are seen as a plague species on the planet.

"The fact is, we do need to be very careful, but we humans have been creating dangerous technology for a long time, and have managed to build in the necessary safeguards to preserve ourselves.

"This will be no different. Challenging? Yes; Are we doomed? No."

Driverless cars: our first dance with AI?

Fully autonomous cars could become the norm by the 2030s. Photo / 123RF
Fully autonomous cars could become the norm by the 2030s. Photo / 123RF

The Government has begun exploring a near future scenario of roads filled with fully autonomous vehicles.

When this became reality depended on what kind of driverless cars were being considered, said Hugh Bradlow, chief scientist at the Telstra Corporation, who is speaking on the subject at the World Science Festival in Brisbane.

People could already buy SAE Level 4 commercial vehicles that were fully autonomous but only able to be operated in certain constrained areas, such as in a CBD.

Bradlow said we might see these moving around our downtown streets by the early 2020s - but expected it would be the mid-2030s before they made up the majority of vehicles on the road.

"The answer also depends on how aggressively governments wish to legislate to obtain the benefits - safety, congestion and convenience - of autonomous vehicles."

But Bradlow believed society was ready for driverless cars, simply because they may save lives.

These vehicles would be safer than human-driven automobiles, he said, thanks to far greater situational awareness, machine-speed reaction times, knowledge from centimetre-accuracy mapping systems and V2X communications systems.

"Most importantly, with time and more data, the systems will be reprogrammed to overcome any deficiencies - you can't reprogram human drivers."

He believed driver trends showed people were already preparing themselves for a future as passengers.

"Fewer young people are learning to drive today because they use ride-sharing, like Uber, and companies such as GoGet are reducing car ownership."

For each GoGet car in Sydney, it was estimated there was a net reduction of 12 vehicles on the road - something that would also ease congestion on clogged motorways and help cities tackle pollution from emissions.

"User education will definitely be required, but society made the transition from horses to cars roughly 100 years ago without too much difficulty."

AI and us

• A Massey University last year study found 87.5 per cent of respondents either disagreed or strongly disagreed with the statement "smart technology, artificial intelligence, robotics or algorithms could take my job".

• Oxford University research has found 47 per cent of all employment in the United States was at risk of being replaced by computers and algorithms in the next 20 years, and a recent Australian report putting the proportion of vulnerable jobs at 44 per cent.

• However, a forensic study by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) found that, of the 21 advanced nations it looked at, only 9 per cent of jobs were "potentially automatable".

- Jamie Morton was hosted at the World Science Festival by Brisbane Marketing