Rise of the machines: Will Robots take your job?

Jul 08, 2015
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robotsShort answer: Probably not. See why Donald Farmer, Qlik's VP of innovation and design believes the current automation trend will take longer than we think.




The Industrial Revolution was responsible for changing the job landscape in the 1800s.
At the time, the world was worried that the new technology would eliminate a majority of the need for human workers. Instead it created millions of jobs: enough to employ the 20th century booming population.

The job market of today is approaching another cross road in regards to technology and employment and, people are finding themselves with the question 'Will I still have a job once robots move in?' Two hundred years ago, 70% of American workers worked in agriculture, today, only one percent do. Will automation in the modern-day workplace lead to this same trend?

It’s true the automation continues to be a growing trend, but not everyone is pessimistic about the job market outcome. Donald Farmer, VP of Qlik, is part of the “glass-half-full camp”.

“I’m not worried about artificial intelligence,” he said in this exclusive interview. "I’m more worried about artificial stupidity.”

What technology and its researchers are considering now is the extent to which decisions can be automated.

Donald Farmer

With a decade in business intelligence experience with Microsoft, time with start-ups and consultancies and, a stint as a research historian and an archaeologist, Farmer has always been interested in human structure knowledge.

“My studies and my career have always led me to think about how we make decisions.” Farmer said. “What technology and its researchers are considering now is the extent to which decisions can be automated. The more we have learnt about how human beings understand information and structure a decision, the more we learn just how necessary humans are for decision making.”robot





Twenty years ago, thousands of decisions were complicated. An overdraft on your bank account meant meeting with the bank manager so he or she could scrutinise you on your personal worth and financial viability. Now many, if not all, financial institutions offer overdraft protection and are immediately able to handle the situation without a human presence. People can even get quotes on home or car loans in seconds online. In short, technology can make a lot of decisions we used to ask people to make: technology has caught up.

But it took more than a bit of code to get this sense of automation to work: people also needed to trust the system and allow for the deregulation of several systems like those of financial institutions. Now that we trust these systems to protect us when we go into overdraft or to provide us with an accurate quote for a home loan, which industries does Farmer expect to see deregulating for automation?

“It takes a lot of time for doctors to meet with patients who have a simple malady,” Farmer said. “In the future, we’re looking for machines to be able to assess simple symptoms and assign remedies. I also think petty crimes may be able to settle out of court by automated systems.”

So if automated systems might be trusted to make these decisions in the near future, what can these systems do? As it turns out, quite a bit. Farmer discussed the viability of these systems resting on the black-an-white nature of decision making. If the results can be turned into an algorithm and, the same time after time-like symptoms that lead to the diagnosis of a cold or flu, a machine or an automated system can make the decision. If there is any degree of ambiguity, or a judgement needs to be made, a machine or system cannot be trusted to make a definitive, appropriate decision.

“Human beings will always have the competitive edge,” Farmer commented. “Most decisions are laced with an amount of ‘grey area’. You won’t hire someone because a machine or a program tells you to, you’re likely to base your decision on how that person interacted with you during an interview. Same with strategic decisions or tactical decisions. Automated systems can only provide so much.”

It’s possible-and probable Farmer said-that as more automated systems move into the repetitive jobs that machines can handle, jobs could be taken away from humans in the short term. And while this is a scary pronouncement for some workers, it’s a win in the long term.

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Instead of doing trivial jobs that don’t offer any challenges to employees, people will either have more free time to do the things that are more interesting to them or be able to train in a career that truly piques their interests. There are downsides, however, as there are with anything, but Farmer is optimistic that adjustments made in the short term will make the future workforce more satisfied with their jobs.

Farmer isn’t without concerns, however. Although people like Stephen Hawking and Elon Musk have warned against the optional dangers of artificial intelligence, Farmer share that there was something much more dangerous in artificial stupidity.

“Machinery is good at input and output, but once a complication is introduced, the system doesn’t work anymore. If something causes your GPS and it gives you a direction to turn into a lake, human decision overrides the absurdity of this-for the most part. In my travels, I’m glad I have highly technical automated systems controlling the plane, but I’m even happier that there are two people overseeing that technology.”

According to Farmer, there are two things currently missing from the process of technology that is slowing down the march towards the dreaded complete automation. For one, machines intelligence is not progressing as fast as many people think: we are seeing a lot of simple decisions happening quickly, but there is nothing yet that has allowed ambiguity.

And although this may sound like the obvious, people tend to forget the machines cannot control themselves.

“If we don’t like a system we are creating, if we think we’re it too much power, then we don’t have to continue with it.” Farmer said.

So if we don’t want robots or automated systems to be this century’s receptionists or managers, then they don’t have to be. Technology is moving pretty fast, but not so fast that you’re going to miss where it’s going next week.Donald Farmer bio

Writen by Laura Close - Venture Magazine (formerly known as Australian BOSS Magazine) on the back of an interview with Donald Farmer.