Outsmarting the machine, the future of IT jobs

One of the main reasons IT exists is to automate low-level work, however that often translates into eliminating jobs. In a world boasting digital disruption, how will the role of an IT worker change?

Humans need to think about how they can avoid being eliminated, or at least displaced in their current role by a machine, in a term deemed technological unemployment.

The Committee for Economic Development of Australia (CEDA) published its major research report Australia's future workforce? earlier this year, calling on Australians to ensure that the nation is technologically ready for the workforce of the future.

According to the think tank, more than 5 million jobs -- almost 40 percent of Australian jobs that exist today -- have a moderate to high likelihood of disappearing in the next 10 to 15 years, citing technological advancements as the reason.

In its report [PDF], CEDA said that while there will be new jobs and industries that emerge from the increasingly digital era, Australia will suffer if it does not plan for, and invest in the right areas.

In our daily lives technology has already begun displacing low level, labour-based jobs. For instance, disruptive technology has created an online marketplace for travelling -- the likes of Webjet, Expedia, and Wotif have nullified a lot of the need for an individual to walk into a travel agent and plan their holiday when they can perform flight and accommodation searches online, and compare and contrast the search results to find a suitable holiday. A user no longer needs the paid opinion of a travel agent when they can trawl peer-based reviews which have the potential to address an individual's concerns, and they can add and remove stopovers with the click of a button.

Cashiers at supermarkets have begun to be replaced with self-checkouts, bank tellers are shrinking in number due to the amount of services that can be completed via online banking, and even labour workers are becoming replaced by automated services.

As of July 2015, mining giant Rio Tinto had 57 autonomous trucks in operation at various Pilbara, Western Australia sites, which are responsible for moving high grade ore. The company has invested in excess of $518 million in an autonomous train, which is currently moving through testing, a spokesperson for the company told ZDNet.

"Implementing autonomous haulage means more material can be moved efficiently and safely, creating a direct increase in productivity," the company said in its Mines of the Future article.

People performing low-level jobs, as well as higher paid, high-laborious trade-based jobs are being replaced by machines, so what about jobs in the very same industry that have been making this automation possible -- the information technology sector -- will they be spared?

According to information technology research and advisory firm Gartner, by 2025, one in three jobs will be converted to either software, robots, and smart machines.

The research report, Smart Machines to Complicate Labor Markets and Ethics said that smart machines will increase productivity, disrupt workplaces and customer relationships, and profoundly affect employment patterns.

A key finding of the report was that smart machines will keep getting smarter and will approach ubiquity as they are able to perform tasks more quickly and effectively than humans, as well as perform some tasks that are impossible for people to do, and some previously thought impossible for machines. The report also found that smart machines develop behaviours beyond their original programming, based on their interactions with people, and they are also being used in ways not imagined initially.

Bard Papegaaij, research director for Gartner's office of the CIO group, feels that while IT roles are constantly evolving, the rise of the machine will see more and more jobs becoming redundant, at a pace far greater than new human-based roles will be created.

With a focus on the "soft-side" of the IT profession, emotional intelligence, interpersonal skills, communication, culture, and branding, Papegaaij is a linguist by trade, who has previously looked into natural language processing by computers, artificial intelligence (AI), and all of the things we "try to do to make computers smarter and more-humanlike".

Papegaaij said his research led him to see that we, as a species, do not know much about people, let alone making a machine person-like.

"Emotions are a very physical thing, a part of us having a body with hormones and all sorts of physical processes. I'm not sure it would actually be that easy to get a computer to produce similar emotions. But you never know," Papegaaij told ZDNet. "We don't know what feeling actually means"

"If you get computers to become as intelligent and as emotional as people, they will start making the same mistakes. It may not actually be a smart idea. If you want to have real AI you will need to accept that it will come with downsides as well."

While it looks obvious -- if Hollywood is any guide -- that machines will get smarter and smarter and in the end they will even outsmart us, our intelligence is not purely logical; it is so much more, and it gets complicated very quickly.

IBM's Watson is a form of artificial intelligence that has a number of applications, including its residency at the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center (MSKCC) in New York. A team of physicians and analysts at the MSKCC have been training Watson to develop a tool that can help medical professionals choose the best treatment plans for individual cancer patients, MSKCC said in a blog post.

So how does one prepare to hold Watson's army at bay when it comes for your job?

"I'm convinced that in IT, you're not safe," Papegaaij said. "We will not create enough jobs to compensate for the jobs that are going lost because of smart machines.

"There are large parts of IT that have matured to the point where it becomes very predictable, such as maintenance of systems, and managing particularly complex systems; if the discipline is mature enough, then a lot of it ends up being open to automation.

"Especially now that we have very smart and fast analytical engines that can process information a lot faster than humans, these self-learning machines can predict patterns, so anything that is fairly predictable can and will be done by a machine, simply because it is cheaper."

Papegaaij says that there are things humans have that he does not see a machine gaining any time soon, such as creativity, serendipity, thinking outside the square -- illogical leaps that actually lead to discovery, and even the ability to make mistakes that lead you to a place you otherwise would not have gone to.

"It's those mistakes that bring out a whole new idea or whole new technology.

"I don't think we can write humans out of the equation on that part. I think businesses will always need a core of creative people."

Papegaaij's advice is to treat yourself as a business in a very competitive market -- ask yourself what makes you special and harness your creativity and innovation, saying that the onus is on an individual to secure their career.

"People have been too slow in realising they have competition, but now the competition is not just outsourcing, it's machines as well," Papegaaij added.

On outsourcing, Russel Ives, operations lead in Australia for management consulting company Accenture, told ZDNet that he believes the idea of boosting efficiency and workplace productivity is nothing new.

"Organisations have been looking for improved productivity and efficiencies for a very long time, since their inception," he said.

"There have been a number of different ways that organisations have looked to achieve productivity and efficiency gains -- from process improvements, the application of simplified automation, automation of scripts, through to large scale IT transformations whereby large systems' implementations have enabled organisations to simplify processes and therefore improve productivity."

Ives told ZDNet he believes that IT jobs are not under threat by machines, saying that he thinks IT roles are becoming increasingly important in a number of areas to drive automation, to drive process improvement, and to drive service quality improvement.

"The technology role is changing. The emerging technologies are getting complex, more prevalent, and more applicable in different places," he said.

"I think the ability to leverage and harness those technology trends and capabilities are going to be increasingly important as organisations look for the next wave of customer service improvements, productivity improvements, and the streamlining of their processes.

"The IT person of today needs to make sure that they are ready for the IT world of tomorrow."

Ives believes that preparing yourself for the digital world of tomorrow has been a focal point for IT professionals going back a long way, saying it has become increasingly important in terms of being able to apply those technologies and demonstrate how they can create value for businesses.

"There are a couple of things that professionals in the domain need to think about in order to stay relevant, one of which is ensuring that they're aligned to where their respective businesses want to go.

"Being able to think about how technology can enable those changes and being able to articulate that in business outcome terms is a very fundamental skill that IT professionals need to continue to develop," he said.

In order to outsmart the machine, IT workers needs to skill themselves up and harness their creativity to secure and maintain a job in a world of digital disruption. They need to find what they can offer an employer that a robot cannot, and leverage that to make themselves indispensable.

As automation eats away at the bottom of the stack, IT jobs will continue to focus on elements higher in the stack. It's a mantra that workers have heard many times before, but this time it isn't for the latest fad in design or methodology, it's for keeping a job in technology.