Kiwis in denial about robot job apocalypse - survey

A humanoid robot works side by side with employees on an assembly line north of Tokyo, Japan (Reuters)
A humanoid robot works side by side with employees on an assembly line north of Tokyo, Japan (Reuters)

Ignorance is bliss for Kiwis about to lose their jobs to robots, according to a new survey.

Almost nine in 10 New Zealanders don't think their jobs are threatened by artificial intelligence and mechanisation, a Massey University study has found.

But international studies have found between 30 and 40 percent of existing jobs will be automated in the next decade or two, and high-profile minds like Stephen Hawking and Bill Gates have warned of a future where most of us don't have to work -- or can't because the jobs aren't there

"We're already seeing the start of it now," says Dr David Brougham, Massey University specialist in the future of work.

Google is one company developing cars that don't need drivers, and so far the results are promising -- every accident they've been involved in on public roads has been the fault of human drivers crashing into them.

Dr Brougham says people in jobs most at risk of being replaced -- checkout operators, drivers and analysts -- are the most in denial, despite technology already starting to replace them.

"We'll see a lot of jobs go in the beginning around self-service checkouts. Once the driverless car is out, we'll have a huge amount of jobs go in the driving space. It's just going to be an ongoing process."

But managers are also bullish about their future job prospects -- and also wrong, says Dr Brougham.

"People believe their jobs are more complex and less repetitive [than they are]. Also, there's a huge incentive for people to go after these high-paid white collar jobs because they cost a lot to pay people. If someone can come up with an algorithm or some kind of piece of technology, AI or software to replace them, they'll do it."

One interviewee said because they work in a storeroom, robots wouldn't affect their career at all -- but internet shopping giant Amazon already has 15,000 robots working in its warehouses, collecting goods and preparing them for delivery.

"It was bizarre reading some of the interview quotes, but I guess ignorance can be bliss," says Dr Brougham.

He's aware not even his own job as a university lecturer is safe.

"We could have a lecturer speaking to 2 million people online from an Ivy League college, so there's a huge scope for the education space to change in the next five years."

Older people aren't so worried about losing their jobs to computers, perhaps being closer to retirement, but young people are -- and as a result they're showing less commitment to individual employers.

"For many of us the future is uncertain and, sadly, we are moving away from permanent jobs that give employees a reasonable amount of stability in their lives."

With suggestions a third of the workforce could be out of a job in the next decade or two, Dr Brougham says we need to figure out how we're going to cope. The post-scarcity society portrayed in Star Trek: The Next Generation won't happen overnight, and if those made redundant by technology don't have an income, there will be few people left to purchase goods and services, a fundamental part of the economy.

"We have to work out a way to distribute things equally when this happens, because if there are 30 percent of the workforce that are no longer working, they can still be valued members of society. We have to view unemployment as different to what we do now."

The universal basic income (UBI) has been suggested by economists as one fix -- paying everyone a basic wage, regardless of their employment status, to keep the economy ticking over. This would reduce bureaucracy, and allow people to flick between jobs and pursue other interests without having to worry about how they're going to pay the bills. Labour and the Greens have both proposed investigating how a UBI might work.

"This is going to happen," says Dr Brougham, "and working out a way to live with each other after this is going to be the main problem."