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How to survive the robot takeover with your job intact

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Reboot your career before robots kick you out of a job, write the authors of a book about the future of work.

If you are worried about robots taking your job, it’s time to stop fretting and decide what you are going to do about it. That doesn’t mean taking up arms against our would-be robot overlords.

The forces of artificial intelligence and automation are unstoppable and are already reshaping employment. AI software can detect breast-cancer tumours on X-ray scans as effectively as doctors, and driverless cars on Californian highways have fewer accidents than human drivers.

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A host of mundane, process-driven jobs will disappear in factories and accounting firms alike. But new jobs will emerge. In 2013, the US Department of Labour forecast that 65% of children at school would eventually be employed in yet-to-be-created jobs. There were no social-media managers and application user interface designers before the internet arrived.

The question is how great the disruption to the workforce will be, and how rapid. Various studies suggest 30-40% of jobs could be automated to some degree.

If that sounds unrealistic, in May I listened to a demonstration of Google Duplex, the AI assistant that can make phone calls on your behalf. It made appointments and restaurant reservations, chatting naturally with the person on the other end of the phone. AI is getting to be that good.

But in Don’t Worry About the Robots: How to Survive and Thrive in the New World of Work, New Zealand authors Jo Cribb and David Glover offer some of the best advice I’ve read on what to do about it. “Our message is simple. Disrupt yourself and your thinking before someone else does,” they write.

David Glover.

The pair have first-hand experience in career change. Cribb was a senior civil servant before starting a consulting business in 2016; Glover ran businesses and served on boards before becoming executive director of partnerships at Unitec, the country’s largest polytechnic. They don’t downplay the extent of the change ahead. “Robots are able to work 24 hours a day, seven days a week without a break and there are more and more jobs they will be able to do. The implications are huge.”

Instead, they urge us to look inward. “Understand your why,” they urge. Why do you do what you do? If the answer is simply to collect the pay cheque, you might be in trouble. That’s because what you value, your personal brand and professional networks, your willingness to take risks and confidence in tackling change will increasingly matter more than your qualifications.

You’ll need to be open to regularly retraining and developing new skills. “Rather than slogging it out working for 50 years, it will be normal to have periods of retraining, self-employment and part-time work, as well as working on the career ladder,” the authors say. “Workers will need to develop an entrepreneurial mindset as work is increasingly driven through digital platforms rather than management.”

Jo Cribb.

It sounds exhausting – and scary. But by investing in yourself and having clear professional goals, based on an understanding of where you want to go, you’ll build the confidence to navigate the disruption that is coming.

The book is full of examples of people doing just that. Broadcaster Linda Clark turned her back mid-career on journalism and retrained as a lawyer. Michelle Dickinson, aka Nanogirl, quit university lecturing to set up a not-for-profit science education and communication outfit.

Of course, not everyone will be as capable of change, which is why we need serious consideration of policies to help people reskill. The risk of job displacement is in part setting the scene for the introduction of a universal basic income in some countries.

But don’t worry about that for now. First, begin to understand your why, disrupt yourself and prepare to welcome your new robot colleagues.

This article was first published in the August 25, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.