IT jobs' big threat: Robots, automation; The solution: More humanity

IT jobs' big threat: Robots, automation; The solution: More humanity

Summary: For IT workers, the worry of becoming obsolete is constant. Toss in automation, robotics and artificial intelligence and many tech tasks won't need humans. Is there any wonder why IT is trying to learn more human and interpersonal skills to move up the food chain?


People with strong interpersonal skills who have advanced degrees and need to collaborate are likely to avoid losing their jobs to robots, automation and artificial intelligence, but potential unemployment angst is likely to persist.

Special Report: The State of IT Jobs: Winners and Losers

How many information technology workers will be able to navigate those changing conditions?

David Hummels, an economics professor at Purdue, noted the interpersonal communication as a key difference between humans and robots. Hummels, speaking at a Purdue conference later this month, was chiming in on a Pew Research Center report on robots and whether they would create as many jobs as they destroyed. Pew noted:

The vast majority of respondents to the 2014 Future of the Internet canvassing anticipate that robotics and artificial intelligence will permeate wide segments of daily life by 2025, with huge implications for a range of industries such as health care, transport and logistics, customer service, and home maintenance. But even as they are largely consistent in their predictions for the evolution of technology itself, they are deeply divided on how advances in AI and robotics will impact the economic and employment picture over the next decade.

In the information technology field, automation is already taking jobs away. As the cloud becomes prevalent there will be fewer people needed to run data centers. Like IT, it's a safe bet that robotics will destroy as many jobs as it creates.

A survey that went along with ZDNet's special report on IT jobs found that 59 percent of technology workers worried that their skills would become obsolete. Mainframe programmers, systems admins, help desk technicians and small business IT managers are becoming obsolete. Systems admins are likely to be automated in the future. Data scientists, IT architects, mobile software developers and security analysts are in demand.

It's unclear how many workers that are out of demand can be morphed into ones that are coveted.

However, IT workers aren't dumb. TechPro Research's full survey revealed that tech workers are trying to out human automation and the changes ahead. 


The takeaway: To stay in the information technology field workers will have to become less technical and more general purpose humans. 

Hummels reckons that humans can stay employed as robots take over if they have:

  • Strong interpersonal skills. Humans will have to have empathy and caring---two traits robots can't replicate.
  • Jobs that aren't repetitive. Uh oh. How many code monkeys would say their jobs are repetitive? IT can look repetitive at times. Those roles could be automated.
  • Roles that require collaboration. Robots aren't going to be good at collaboration for a while. Humans will need to fill that role.

The bottom line: The traits that are most needed to fend off automation and the robots are the ones least sterotypically common in the IT field. There's a reason business line leaders are grabbing a larger chunk of the technology budget and information science programs at university have to emphasize people skills more.

Topics: CXO, IT Employment, Innovation

Kick off your day with ZDNet's daily email newsletter. It's the freshest tech news and opinion, served hot. Get it.


Log in or register to join the discussion
  • They've been saying the exact same thing...

    ...since 1960.

    It hasn't happened yet, and it won't. Some jobs NEED to be lost, self-configuring OSes that don't need people with sys admin certificates would be a GOOD thing, especially for small to mid-size businesses.

    But "code monkeys" aren't replaceable and never will be. Not as long as PHBs demand the infinite customization they always do. Besides, todays developers are by necessity jacks of all trades, from DB analysis and design to coding to system architecture.

    Same is true for the other core disciplines. They will be automated and simplified to a degree, but the day an AI is as capable as a human (even in a limited skill set) is the day that AI needs to become a citizen. :) Because at that point they are a person.
    • Over 50%....

      of SAMBA 4 is auto-generated... Most of the "code monkeys" will be replaced way before sys/net admins.
  • robots?

    I don't see how robots are a threat to IT. If anything, it creates more jobs related to IT. Robots are a threat to people working in manufacturing if anything and we've barely touched the capabilities in that scenario.
  • Problem is...

    There is no humanity in corporate America. Some may call it bottom line but in reality it is excessive greed - sucking the middle class dry and into the pockets of the rich.

    Fifty years ago they wer talking about how by the year 2000 robots would be doing the work and people would be free to have more leisure time. Fact of the matter is that was a false dream. All increases in productivity go to the rich. It used to be a single earner could support a family, then women were allowed/coerced into the workforce and a 50% reduction in standard of living was covered up by a new two wage earner family support. It's great that women were tacitly allowed equal rights to work, but the rights were abused.

    Under thr current corporatocracy all increases in productivity will go to the rich and the middle class will continue to be destroyed as the reap none of the benefits. Not until a paradigm shift in how capitalsm is implemented arrives.
  • These articles...

    ....are around a lot yet I know a lot of small business IT Managers who are busier than even trying to juggle multiple needs including the need to help people learn and use mobile tech. I do see it being hard for an MCSE/IT Manager type to change jobs as they are not "in demand" right now but not sure I see a lot losing their jobs.
  • Most economists and politicians are unable to think philosophically.

    it is certainly within the realm of PHYSICAL possibility to have this robotic utopia, but SOCIAL acceptability and POLITICAL will are lacking. Here is the basic conundrum, stripped to essentials.

    1) For most of history, humans have had to work for economic productivity, on the average, 90+ percent of their waking hours, to provide the goods and services needed for survival. Note the word AVERAGE: civilization and division of labor made it possible for a small elite to make their economic "contribution" by ruling the others, taking some of their output and pushing them closer to starvation, in "exchange" for enforcing their cooperation on projects that helped improve production (as in irrigation systems and grain storehouses), protecting against other groups of humans (military), or just boosting their egos and enhancing their control over the rest (pyramids, palaces, cathedrals, etc.).

    2) The development of technology made it possible for the same number of workers to produce more in the same amount of time. The ruling powers diverted some of the surplus productivity to making even grander palaces and cathedrals, giving them more leisure time and multiplying their numbers somewhat, and gradually made life easier and safer for the masses of people. The development of representative democracy narrowed somewhat the gap between rulers and common people, and capitalism transferred most of the coercive organizing power from "fiat" power (you WILL spend your off season working on this temple or other project, and you WILL turn over X percent of your crops) to "market" power, by means of which those who spent the MONEY to buy, or have built, the new tools which allowed more goods to be produced, received the difference between what other people (consumers) would pay them and what they had to pay others (workers). Since much of the new technology replaced skilled artisan labor with repetitive tasks, making the potential workers interchangeable, their wages were bid down and profits went up.

    3) As the social structure shifted from "divine right of kings" and nobles to collect whatever resources they wanted, to a "marketplace" of goods and services swapped for money, at least in Western democracies, the more efficient production of necessities so that more people, including workers, could afford to have more of them, then to the production of NEW types of goods, more efficiently and in larger quantities, and it seemed that in the short term (historically speaking), this market system could be sustained forever, with an ever growing amount and variety of goods and an ever growing population of consumers. Even the replacement of jobs for humans by robots seemed to be a way to make the total SIZE of the economy grow larger, so the decreasing PERCENTAGE of work done by humans would still result in an increasing NUMBER of humans with non-robotic jobs. Note what a large percentage of our labor today goes to persuading people to WANT to buy a product!

    4) But the physical limits of Earth's space, resources, and ability to absorb pollution WILL cause limits to population (one way or another) and thus to the eternal growth of market economies. Eventually, barring catastrophe, there will be a time when the MAJORITY of the population will not be NEEDED to work, and there will be plenty produced for all. The catch is that SOCIALLY we are in a system in which only those whose OUTPUT is demanded by the market are allowed to consume the output of OTHERS; in other words, one must add to the supply in order to be able to demand. Yet adding to the supply will no longer be necessary with a stable population (and the only alternative to that IS catastrophe).

    5) Therefore, SOME modification of the market economy will be necessary to make it a steady state, sustainable way for humans to live with robotics. In the old nobility based economy, it would only be necessary to begin awarding titles to peasants, so they could enjoy the fruits of the labor of the robotic "peasants" assisted by the remaining human peasants. In a market economy, these questions must be answered differently. Perhaps we can see a rotation between work and long sabbaticals as the norm, with sabbaticals subsidized by public funds. This would look superficially like the welfare system, but we would no longer say that the recipients are too "lazy" to work, rather they are "surplus" and, provided they have worked in the past and will work in the future when their term is up, they are morally entitled to "goof off" for now; in fact their "goofing off" is necessary to keep the economy going. And in reality, humans with excess time for leisure eventually find something constructive but not financially oriented to do with it.

    Let's start the PHILOSOPHICAL dialogue now, so that when we run out of jobs to clean up the mess we are making now, our descendants can make a smooth transition to the new robotic "utopia" (not that there will no longer be problems, but that we will no longer have this one large BUILT IN problem we have now).
    • Not bad. Not Bad

      Yah, the social contract between employer and employee is about to be mussed up.
      I look at it in a broader context. There are so many changes going on - social, technical, philosophical, etc that I used ecology as a tool of analysis. It is the only broad enough topic to encompass all that is going one, especially because the danger of disease (Traditionally the biggest selective effect on humans and I don't think anyone understands what that ebola could do if it gets on a roll) and the genetic effect that will be the result of removing natural selection in the name of human progress. I published a book on it at Amazon if you are interested - Transition To A New Human Ecology. I think I asked a lot of questions that have not been asked and I have answered many of them.
  • I think it will be worse than anyone guesses

    I think it will be worse than anyone guesses for a few reasons including no one wants to admit to the problem when there are so few solutions available. It will be bad for IT, but it will be worse for everyone else. Robots have replaced many of the middle level jobs, because it was economical and many could be replaced by the Internet, the biggest single piece of automation there is. Because governmental screwing around on immigration law, it became economical to replace farm workers with machines, something they said could not be done. Shortly it will be economical to replace most of the low paying jobs as well. The disruption will be indescribable. People have always gotten their identity as well as livelihoods from their jobs. Ask an anthropologist what the most important thing is to human social behavior and they will say that it is status. That too comes largely from jobs. It is just one of many radical changes that are culminating right now for humans I published a book on it at Amazon if you are interested - Transition To A New Human Ecology. I have to admit that automation was the toughest problem for me to solve, because Yes Virginia, you can replace a human with a machine. I do think I solved it and a bunch of other problems.
  • So, who's going to work on the robots?

    None of the articles I've read in this area seem to ever address the fact that the first few generations of robots *capable* of replacing an IT staffer will likely still require human IT personnel for it's own repairs, maintenance, and upgrades.

    Does anyone here honestly think that we would ever allow robots to become that self-sufficient? I don't believe we would because there are too many people who have seen 'The Matrix' and don't want it to become self-fulfilling prophecy.

    Now, if these greedy types (as mentioned in previous posts here) are intent on planetary level annihilation of the human species, then I guess it'll happen anyway. But at that point, there won't be *any* jobs because there won't be a civilization to support those jobs. All that will be left will be 'Humanity's children'.

    Maybe a few of the so-called analysts behind these articles should take a good long look at the paradox this *will create*. Because I, for one, will be more than happy to help turn those corporate dronebots into full blown frakkin' Decepticons if my avenues of employment are wiped out by robots.
  • Another aspect is when companies switch to Unix derivatives like Linux.

    Employees and customers not getting infected will make a big difference in IT staffing.

    Most likely, the recent Home Depot, JP Morgan, Target and other numerous mass identity thefts were done on Microsoft computers. I believe the JP Morgan attack was through a zero day exploit.

    I don't believe IT will be replaced, but possibly staffing requirements would diminish if Linux or another Unix derivative was used. Much of what I've seen as IT work over the decades was chasing infections. One of the most notable was Conficker.
    • It;s looking like all the recent large scale hacking was on Microsoft.

      This coupled with the recent Critical Update problems are either going to make tremendous work for IT or possibly work in the opposite direction as companies and individuals look for alternatives.

      The JP Morgan, major bank, Target, Home Depot and other attacks are corrupting the entire financial system. This is becoming commonplace and the trial is leading back to Microsoft.
      • Going to the bank this morning to get new debit cards...

        We use them a lot at the local Home Depot.

        Sometimes using Linux for 15 years isn't enough.
  • Code monkeys?

    "How many code monkeys would say their jobs are repetitive?"

    Zero? Why are you writing code if it isn't to automate something repetitive?
    • The function BEING automated may be repetitive,

      But in many cases, figuring out HOW to automate that function requires a great deal of technical creativity, along with some repetitive functions WITHIN the figuring-out process, such as compiling, scanning for cross-references, running tests, etc. We already have some automation of what might be called the "error detecting" steps of designing code, but as far as I know, there is no automatic program to which one could feed samples of how humans are doing, or once did, some process, that would spit out a totally correct solution without human involvement. Once that is accomplished, THEN robots will be in charge and human "code monkeys" will no longer be needed.

      And, as I mentioned in my earlier post, in order to avoid an ecological catastrophe, we will THEN (if not sooner) need to find a way to distribute what these robots can make without human assistance, to all humans equitably, without the social stigma of being "lazy" if one is not needed to make those commodities. An economy in which everyone must be busy making something, or busy in an activity that looks like making something, in order to consume what can be made without everyone's labor, is an economy that demands perpetual growth in total volume of production, and perpetual growth in population, in order to avoid massive poverty which will cause the entire social structure to collapse.
  • I bought a new Toshiba 16" notebook around 2007 for $299.

    It was a Walmart back-to-school special. I upgraded the RAM slightly and bought a 500 GB IDE drive. (It's 32-bit). It worked surprisingly well, but was pretty heavy. As far as I know it had a CCFL screen, not LED like current notebooks.

    It came with Vista and when I replaced the HDD, i installed Linux Mint 10, which was current at the time.

    My daughter started using it so much I gave it to her. She uses it about 5 hours a day since then. The screen is still bright and sharp and it still has the same Linux Mint 10 which, of course, does not use any anti-virus.

    I haven't had to do anything to the computer, so, from an IT perspective, there was no attention given to it in that time period. No infectiions, no defragging, no tuning up.

    It has a Celeron 900 Mhz processor and the CPU fan seized up a while ago. Interesting though, that''s not a problem, the CPU does not overheat.

    She uses it to play DVD's, write emails, do artwork, write letters, etc. I wanted to upgrade it a couple of times, but she's used to it and really doesn't need an upgrade. It's just as fast as when the OS was installed.

    My point, IT expenditures can be substantially reduced very easily without automation.