Is a robot going to take your job?

Is a robot going to take your job? It’s a question that dominates every debate about artificial intelligence and all its remarkable and endless possibilities.

The problem is, it’s not the right question. Nor even a particularly imaginative one.

Instead we should ask:

How can I make artificial intelligence work for me?

And how can AI improve the lives of those I love?

Consider your local school tuckshop. Relying on volunteer time-poor parents and cash-strapped P&C committees, the most recent advances have probably been the online ordering via mobile phone apps and, maybe the introduction of spiralised vegetables to the dismay of the kids.

The average four-hour shift is devoted to the laborious task of cross-checking the order list, making the sandwiches, cross-checking for intolerances and allergies, packing the lunch bags, sorting the class baskets and ordering the next week’s deliveries. The most satisfying part is a brief 45 minutes of serving those hungry little hordes.

Tuckshops, as with so many volunteer-led not-for-profit organisations like aged care and disability services, suffers from high drop-out rates and burn out.

New research by economist Dr Andrew Charlton and Alphabeta published this week predicts food preparation workers will be among the most likely professions to be affected by AI in the next thirty years.

Imagine if the average canteen shift was reduced to just an hour and half?

The job wouldn’t disappear but there would be more time to devote to other important volunteering roles like classroom literacy and maths. Or in the case of aged and disability care, more time for caring in the way only humans can do.

This is the crux of where the artificial intelligence debate should be. What are the values are the heart of AI technology?

Any business looking at introducing AI purely to cut costs and jobs does so at its peril.

A decade ago, a slew of Australia’s largest companies began to consider the cost savings of cutting jobs in local shopfronts and call centres, to shift them to cheap offshore call centres.

Politicians and their governments fielded daily demands to intervene to stop the looming flood of jobs from Australia.

Unions predicted up to 850,000 jobs would be lost offshore within twenty years and called for Australia’s biggest banks to lose their taxpayer-funded bank deposit guarantee if they pursued “offshoring” Corporations, like Telstra looking for savings by shipping its Yellow Pages jobs offshore, found there was an even bigger cost - reputational damage.

This is the risk companies take if they use new technology to cut costs without considering both their workers and their customers first.

These days telecommuting is accepted practice and the fact some workers are able to use technology to work from home or a regional town is marketed a boon for life-work balance.

The same can happen with artificial intelligence as long as we take control of the technology and not the other way around.

For businesses, this means investing in upskilling the workers they already have and taking an active interest in developing the future pool of workers.

In practice, we should see our business leaders take on an advocacy role to encourage governments to invest in education and ensure that any new AI regulation protects people without smothering innovation.

We should be thinking creatively and collaboratively how AI, machine learning, and robotics can create more satisfying and safer jobs.

And we must never stay still. Take for example the remarkable Canberra company, Seeing Machines which develops and provides AI-powered optical technology to ensure professional drivers in the mining, transport, and aviation industry remain safe and awake.

The introduction of driverless cars might appear a business threat to a business focussed on keeping human drivers focused on the road.

Instead this cutting-edge company is “owning” it by developing safety technology to ensure human “driver” in an automated car remains alert and ready to take over.

Consider the market demographic for expensive high-spec driverless Tesla. Without wishing to generalise, a fair few of them would be older men with a risk of heart attack or stroke. The Seeing Machines artificial intelligence can assess if something goes horribly wrong in the human world.

For everyday workers, we must not be afraid. AI is just a tool we need to learn and understand. To paraphrase former US President Barack Obama, for years we’ve used machines to extend human intelligence.

Every office worker used to have a calculator sitting on their desk but now that calculator lives inside your phone.

Right next to your AI-powered digital assistant Siri, Cortana or Alexa who are ready to be of service.

Annie O’Rourke is founder and creative director of artificial intelligence firm Digital Workforce Australia. She is a former e-communications director to a former prime minister.

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