Robots will make your coffee, Labour conference hears

Robots will replace baristas in cafés as part of a coming wave of job losses.

Robots will replace baristas in cafés as part of a coming wave of job losses in service industries that will occur "at an unprecedented rate" as a massive jump in productivity caused by digital technology takes hold in the world economy, a Swedish technologist and academic, Goran Roos, told the Labour Party Future of Work conference in Auckland.

"All this hoo-ha about having a service economy is going to come back and haunt those economies very much," Mr Roos says, predicting jobs in service industries will start to disappear in the same way as they did in agriculture in the 19th and 20th centuries and in manufacturing in the past 30 years.

While services industries had been slower to improve their productivity than manufacturing, averaging improvements of just 0.3% a year, that was all about the change, says Mr Roos, who has an international reputation in innovation policy and has advised both the Labour Party in New Zealand in the past few years and the government of South Australia, where he is now based.

Service sector productivity would soon be growing at around 7-10% a year, he says.

"Jobs will disappear at an unprecedented rate," he says, scything through back office jobs in areas like legal and accounting services.

One example was the ability of a computer to scan thousands of pages of legal documents within minutes when the same job would take a team of paralegal workers weeks or months to perform.

Automated coffee-making
Even the makers of the morning coffee would not be safe, he says, citing developments now under way in the US to automate coffee-making.

"Robots will see you arrive, make your favourite coffee and deliver it to your desk, and pay for itself in nine months."

But if the outlook for baristas is automated, the outlook for barristers will improve, Mr Roos suggests, as people with specialised skills will keep their jobs and probably earn more.

"Barristers will still be in court and make even more," he says, while skills such as being able to think nimbly and interact well personally will become more valued.

All the same, there was a broad consensus among future-casters that by the year 2032 computerised systems would be better than people at doing most things, leaving people with hobbies rather than jobs.

Aim for 'economic complexity'
Countries that did well in this world would be those with high levels of "economic complexity," meaning they hosted industries that were hard to replicate.

A country like Australia, with a reliance on resource extraction, lacked economic complexity compared with countries with large high-tech sectors like Switzerland and Japan.

By way of example, Mr Roos says the ability to build a conventionally-powered submarine is defined as the most complex technological challenge any manufacturer could take on, with only four countries capable of building them.

After that were the ability to mount a mission to Mars, build a fighter aircraft and then the ability to build the "new means of production," such as 3-D printers.

Referring to debate at the conference about the potential to introduce a universal basic income to help societies to cope with massive and fast-changing trends in the workplace, Mr Roos says there's no need to decide on a UBI policy now.

"Listen very carefully to the debate in Switzerland," he says. "If there's any country in the world that can afford it, it's Switzerland." Switzerland will hold a referendum on a UBI on June 8.


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