Not for sale Automation is taking hold in NZ workplaces but will it lead to a jobs ‘apocalypse’?

In offices of the near future most staff will have a colleague of a different kind – a personal robot.

Sound far-fetched? Not so says PwC partner Chris Barendregt: "Workers will be able to create their own robot to take over many of the more mundane tasks they currently carry out. People should think of them as an assistant."

"People are busy running to and fro from meetings," Barendregt says. "If someone doesn't turn up or hasn't got the data needed for a discussion a robot can do the chasing up, send out reminder emails.

"By creating their own robots - and I mean software robots - people can easily 'train' them to do these simple things. This is part of the new wave of automation and I believe it will ultimately extend to a point where every New Zealander, at home and at work, will have a personal robot."

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Chris Barendregt. Photo / Supplied.
Chris Barendregt. Photo / Supplied.

Barendregt's comments come ahead of the latest PwC Herald Talks event on November 15 which will feature a panel discussion on the implications for New Zealand of the tech revolution.

He says New Zealanders are becoming comfortable with artificial intelligence (AI) and automation technology especially as it becomes easier and cheaper to use.

It is increasingly being put to use in New Zealand businesses and organisations to carry out repetitive jobs such as cutting, pasting and formatting leaving staff more time for analysis and strategic thinking.

The 2019 PwC CEO survey found that 84 per cent of New Zealand company heads believe AI will transform their businesses although almost half (46 per cent) think it will displace more jobs than it will create.

But Barendregt thinks it will create new and more interesting jobs: "We say automation will ensure people 'do things better and do better things'. It's not about people losing jobs, rather it is about how jobs will change and how work will be refocused."

PwC director Matt Whitaker says there has been a lot of talk in the media about the "tech apocalypse" taking away jobs and its impact on the workforce. But, he says, there is also the other side of the coin – what automation can do for improving employee and customer experience.

"What it will do, we believe, is by freeing employees up from mundane tasks it will improve their engagement, creating better more rewarding jobs and through that lead to better experiences for customers."

Whitaker says a 2018 PwC UK report - Will robots really steal our jobs? - predicts AI robotics and other forms of smart automation have the potential to bring great economic benefits contributing up to $15 trillion to global GDP by 2030.

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The report says there will be a relatively low displacement of existing jobs in the first wave of automation (up to the early 2020s) and Whitaker says PwC's analysis in New Zealand shows that automation will actually lead to increasing workloads with most businesses likely to maintain staff levels.

Matt Whitaker. Photo / Supplied.
Matt Whitaker. Photo / Supplied.

One of the keys to meeting the tech revolution is for government and business to work together to help people adjust by retraining to acquire the skills necessary to carry out the high tech jobs likely to arise out of AI and robotics.

He says PwC itself is taking a lead in this; the company committed to putting its global staff of 276,000 through training in AI and automation.

Whitaker says he believes New Zealand companies at the forefront of automation are just as advanced as anywhere else in the world: "We've just come back from Silicon Valley and we can see New Zealand is punching above its weight, not necessarily in creating new technology, but in the way we are applying it.

"Ten years ago the costs involved meant these technologies would only have been available to large corporations, but ease of use and cost affordability has "democratised" automation so it is as accessible to the person in the street as it is to big business."

Both Barendregt and Whitaker recommend companies start off applying new technology to lower end repetitive tasks: "From there they can invest in more complex systems and functions," says Barendregt. "But it is good for them to get some runs on the board first."

Barendregt says it is important companies have a strategy for AI at board level and directly involve frontline employees in designing and implementing solutions. He also advises businesses put in place effective governance structures.

He says while most people won't balk at organisations like immigration authorities, for example, using facial recognition at passport control, another company or business using the same technology may not have the same level of trust with people.

"There is potential for things to go wrong and damage a brand so companies need to have a plan to mitigate any risks. But it's a fine line and we don't want to stop the good use of AI."