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Weekend Thinking: Will A Robot Steal Your Job?

That Roomba automated vacuum cleaner that terrifies your dog is only the beginning. The robots are coming.

Advances in robotics and artificial intelligence mean that many of the jobs people do today– from truck driving to sales to manufacturing – will soon be done by robots.

A report released this week from the Brookfield Institute for Innovation + Entrepreneurship at Ryerson University found that nearly 42 per cent of the Canadian labour force is at a high risk of losing their jobs to automation over the next 10 to 20 years.

Robots-working-in-Restaurants-in-China

A restaurant in Jiansu Province, China, has 15 robots on its staff cooking and serving. Image: wonderfulengineering.com

The report says that the majority of high-risk occupations are in office support and general administration, sales and services, transportation and distribution, lower skilled technical occupations in health, natural and applied sciences, as well as manufacturing and construction labourers and assemblers.

Think that sounds far-fetched, or at least far away? Check out this video from robot innovators Boston Dynamics.

The smart robots are closer than we think.

The province threatened most by automation according to the Ryerson study is PEI, with over 45 per cent at of jobs at high risk of being replaced by robots over the next two decades. Potato harvesting and processing, we’re guessing. Or maybe robot Anne of Green Gables?

But the news isn’t entirely dire if you happen to be one of the millions of Canadians who could be replaced by a shiny robot who doesn’t need a break to go to Tim’s for a double-double. “We don’t believe that all of these jobs will be lost.  Many will be restructured and new jobs will be created as the nature of occupations change due to the impact of technology and computerization,” says Ryerson’s Sean Mullin.

When we talk about the future the discussion always seems to be divided between the utopians (think Jetsons happy robot future) and the dystopians (think Terminators killing all the humans).

Technology mogul and big time venture capitalist Marc Andreesen says it’s a Luddite fallacy to think the rise of robots means we are heading into a jobless future.

“There are more net jobs in the world today than ever before, after hundreds of years of technological innovation and hundreds of years of people predicting the death of work,” he told Venturebeat. His venture capital fund just raised another $1.5 billion to fund startups building that more hopeful future.  

Want to avoid being replaced by a robot, or thinking about career advice for your kids so they avoid the same fate? Look to careers in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math). These sectors are going to create many new jobs in the coming years.

Jeffrey Dorfman, writing in Forbes, looked at agriculture as example of what profound technological change can do to an economy. In 1900, 40 per cent of the U.S. workforce worked on farms. Today that’s down to 1 per cent. Why? Machines that let farmers do the work of dozens of people.

That kind of technological advance should have decimated the early 20th century economy. But it didn’t. The displaced farm workers found new jobs that hadn’t existed previously, including building, selling and maintaining the machines that replaced them.

We can expect that the same to happen with the looming generation of smart robots. Sure it’s scary to think that robots will replace cooks, retail sales people and factory workers. But that doesn’t mean those people will never find new work. The economy will change, new jobs will emerge that we aren’t even envisioning today.

In this scenario, productivity will rise, as will incomes. So what’s not to love about our robot future?