Be prepared for a monumental shift in jobs


An Amazon pick-up location at the University of California in Berkeley, California. 
Amazon has opened a prototype grocery store in Seattle in the US.Photo: Reuters

CAPE TOWN – On December 5, 2016, Amazon gave us a glimpse of what could happen to jobs in the retail sector. Amazon opened a prototype grocery store (Amazon Go) in Seattle, Washington (US). The Amazon Go store enables customers to purchase products without using a cashier or checkout station.

According to a recent study by Oxford and Yale university researchers, retail is not the only industry where we will see a shift in jobs.

They predict that Artificial Intelligence (AI) will outperform humans in many activities in the next ten years, such as translating languages (by 2024) driving a truck (by 2027), writing a bestselling book (by 2049), and working as a surgeon (by 2053).

The following are just some of the workers that are at risk of being impacted by automation: restaurant workers; programmers; truck drivers; farm workers and journalists.

RESTAURANT WORKERS: In the restaurant sector there are machines that are being developed that produce very high quality hamburgers. The machines can produce about 350 to 400 hamburgers per hour; they come out fully configured on a conveyor belt ready to serve the customer. It’s all fresh vegetables and freshly ground meat and so forth; it’s not frozen patties like you might find at a fast food restaurants. These are actually much higher quality hamburgers than you’d find at a typical fast food restaurant. These machines are compact and could potentially be used not just in fast food restaurants but in convenience stores and also maybe in vending machines.

PROGRAMMERS: People working in the computer science field are also not safe. Computer scientists have conducted research into the automation of bug fixes – the most promising program at the moment is GenProg, a program that uses genetic programming to mutate existing codebases to fix bugs. This points to a possibility of programmers themselves being replaced by AI enabled tools, although there would still be some roles for programmers to develop more complex codes.

TRUCK DRIVERS: A Swedish start-up, Einride, recently unveiled a prototype of a self-driving truck that completely lacks a steering wheel, pedals and a windshield. The truck can be controlled remotely by a human operator, or can operate autonomously without human intervention. Einride aims to deliver a complete transport system by 2020 in Europe. A study in this field has revealed that automated trucks could reduce the demand for drivers as much as 50 to 70% in the US and Europe by 2030, with 4.4 million of the 6.4 million professional drivers on both continents rendered obsolete.

FARM WORKERS: In Japan they’ve got a robot that they use now to pick strawberries. It can pick one strawberry every few seconds and it actually operates at night so that they can operate around the clock picking strawberries. In some parts of the world agriculture sector has already been the most dramatically impacted by technology. There are some areas of agriculture now that are almost essentially fully automated.

JOURNALISTS: The media sector has been hard hit by technology already, however, its impact will still be felt in the future. There are now digital tools that look at the raw data that’s provided from some source and it translates that into a real narrative. The tools do not just simply take numbers and fill in the blanks in a formulaic report.

They have the ability to actually analyse the data and figure out what is important, what facts are most interesting and then weave the information into a compelling narrative.

They’re generating thousands and thousands of stories. In fact, the number that is currently reported is about one story every 30 seconds being generated automatically. Some media companies are already using these tools. Right now it tends to be focused on those areas that you might consider to be a bit more formulaic, for example sports reporting and also financial reporting.

Some of these predictions about impact of technology on jobs will not be felt in the near future, especially in the African continent. At the same time some of them are beginning to impact on jobs.

The fact that technology takes away some jobs whilst introducing new jobs has always been with us. The understanding of the future impact of technology on jobs should inform future planning today in order for industries and people to be ready for types of skills that will be required.

Universities should start preparing people for the upcoming reality. The worst that could happen is a highly educated population that is not well skilled for the new kind of jobs.

Policy makers also need to be alert to the new developments in industry that are brought about by the Fourth Industrial Revolution. Policies should be developed now to enable the new emerging economy driven mainly by robots. Such policies should take into account the fact that people will be operating in different environments.

According to the World Bank Development Report, there’s currently a 67% risk that jobs will be replaced by automation in South Africa. This is based on the number of jobs that exist that are vulnerable to automation.

As the world prepares for the new reality, The Infonomist will develop a report that will inform the decision makers about jobs that are at risk in Africa.

Wesley Diphoko is the head of Independent Media’s Digital Lab.