Last Wednesday a headline in my ABC News feed caught my attention as well as the breath in my chest. “NAB workers latest to fall as automation transforms the economy” it yelled, saying that the retrenchment of 6,000 NAB workers (mostly from the bank’s HQ in Melbourne) announced in November last year would commence rolling out this week.
This mass exodus of staff is the result of software that is now capable of increasingly complex tasks. The story went on, and I quote, “It’s the crest of a digital wave flooding through banks, financial institutions, accounting and law firms, and if you’re doing a white-collar job that deals with information, you’re in for a bumpy ride.”
That quote harks back to a standout contention of Daniel Pink’s incredible book A Whole New Mind – Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the Future. This seminal work, published in 2006, argued that even if our means of making a living is considered ‘knowledge work’ our left-brain directed jobs would still come under threat from outsourcing to somewhere in the world that’s cheaper, and the killer-app of automation, where algorithms and artificial intelligence do the heavy lifting.
Further down in this ABC story about the unfortunate NAB retrenchees, there was a link bearing the beguiling title of ‘Could a robot do your job?’ – clickbait if ever I saw it, but highly effective in this instance. I followed this link to a page proffering a determination of the likelihood of a robot replacing you at your desk, based on data from a research outfit called AlphaBeta. “Search for your job, if you’re game” were the exact words I read on the screen as I simultaneously heard a gauntlet slapping the ground.
Well here goes, I thought, choosing ‘Public Relations Professional’ from the helpful drop-down list. The results were presented in percentage weightings and in a PR professional’s case, 28 percent of the job is susceptible to automation for tasks such as information gathering, sales monitoring, conducting surveys within organisations, and even developing budgets and financial reports.
The other 72 percent ‘not as susceptible’ to automation moved the task needle from ‘information gathering and monitoring’ to things like trend analysis, strategy development and practical implementation policies.
While a 28 to 72 percent ratio is not a panic-inducing place to be in terms of AI’s encroachment into the jobs of PR Professionals, I did note the ‘not as susceptible’ comment with regard to the greater percentage. The ever-increasing sophistication and, dare I say it, evolution of AI and robot-intelligence will continue to chip away at that 72 percent, I’m sure of it.
I’m only about a third of the way through a fascinating book called Why the Future is Workless by Tim Dunlop. You’ll have to wait for me to finish it before I can write a blog on how Dunlop proposes that we, as a society, prepare for the inevitability of robots doing the bulk of our jobs – and not just the menial or left-brain ones either.
One concept that Dunlop has already explored in the third of this book that I’ve read to date has really stuck with me. It’s the notion that paid work is critical to our physical and emotional survival in today’s society – from our ability to put food on the table to the positive mental well-being and self-worth that comes from being actively employed. So critical is our daily ‘work’ to our very existence that even the highly-skilled and educated among us are supremely threatened by the inexorable march of the robots.
While the day robots start replacing PR Professionals might be a little way off, we’d do well to start adjusting our mindsets and work practices for it, I think.