What if a robot takes my job

What if a robot takes my job

The next time someone asks me what my job is, I might make beeping noises before I drone: "I, robot."

I'm a sub-editor, which is a deep, dark mystery to some people.

"Oh, editor."

"No, sub-editor," I sub the person's statement in reply.

"Ya what. Editor."

I patiently explain what sub-editing and laying out of pages involve. That promptly invites the less-inhibited to blurt out the ego-eviscerating, "But reporters can use the spell-check function on computers", or the soul-stabbing, "Har? They need people to place words and photos on pages?"

So when I read The Straits Times report "How safe is your job?" (March 29, 2014) on the kinds of professions at risk of being replaced by automation and computerisation, my antennae popped up and I thought: "One day, R2-D2 is coming for my job."

In a time when we might be in danger of being replaced by robots at work, how do we press the right buttons within ourselves to handle the changes?

That news report was part of a bigger story package entitled "The case of the vanishing mid-level skilled worker", partly on how advances in technology are making some workers obsolete without creating new jobs for which they can retrain.

Cashiers, for example, are replaced by websites and supermarket self-checkout counters.

An Oxford University study on jobs in the United States worked out the probability of computerisation for 702 occupations, indicating how likely these jobs would be lost to automation within the next 20 years. The authors ranked the jobs based on how easy it would be for a computer programmer to break them down and specify them. A probability of 1 means certain computerisation.

Running my eyes over the list of jobs like a cheap laser scanner, I do not spot "sub-editor". Maybe it is left out because it is a deep, dark mystery to the authors too. But I do see "reporters and correspondents" with a probability score of 0.11. In comparison, "recreational therapists" have a probability of 0.0028 for computerisation, while at the other end of the spectrum, "telemarketers" have a probability of 0.99.

I am not sure how comforting 0.11 is to reporters in the light of the Los Angeles Times publishing an earthquake story written by a robo-writer recently. Journalist and programmer Ken Schwencke created an algorithm that automatically generates a short article when an earthquake occurs. The LA Times is a pioneer in the technology which draws on trusted sources - such as the US Geological Survey - and slots data into a pre-written template.

The generated story does not replace the journalist, Mr Schwencke argues. "It's supplemental," he tells Slate magazine. "It saves people a lot of time, and for certain types of stories, it gets the information out there in usually about as good a way as anybody else would. The way I see it is, it doesn't eliminate anybody's job as much as it makes everybody's job more interesting."

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