Apr 07, 2014

    What if a robot takes my job?

    THE next time someone asks me what my job is, I might make beeping noises before I drone: "I, robot."

    I'm a sub-editor, which is a deep, dark mystery to some people.

    "Oh, editor."

    "No, sub-editor," I sub the person's statement in reply.

    I explain patiently what sub-editing and laying out of pages involve. That promptly invites the less-inhibited to blurt out the ego-eviscerating: "But reporters can use the spell-check function on computers", or the soul-stabbing: "Har? They need people to place words and photos on pages?"

    So when I read The Straits Times (ST) report, "How safe is your job?" (March 29), on the kinds of professions at risk of being replaced by automation and computerisation, my antennae popped up and I thought: "One day, R2-D2 is coming for my job."

    In a time when we might be in danger of being replaced by robots at work, how do we press the right buttons within ourselves to handle the changes?

    Cashiers, for example, are replaced by websites and supermarket self-checkout counters.

    An Oxford University study on jobs in the United States worked out the probability of computerisation for 702 occupations, indicating how likely these jobs would be lost to automation within the next 20 years.

    The authors ranked the jobs based on how easy it would be for a computer programmer to break them down and specify them. A probability of 1 means certain computerisation.

    Running my eye over the list of jobs, like a cheap laser scanner, I did not spot "sub-editor". But I did see "reporters and correspondents" with a probability score of 0.11.

    In comparison, "recreational therapists" have a probability of 0.0028 for computerisation, while at the other end of the spectrum, "telemarketers" have a probability of 0.99.

    "People may have to prepare for having two different careers," National University of Singapore labour economist Shandre Thangavelu said in a related ST report, "The case of the vanishing mid-level skilled worker", on mid-level skilled jobs vanishing.

    "The ability to acquire a new skill becomes very important, because you have to think about moving people across industries."

    Apart from picking up skills, loosening our identities from our jobs may help ease our way into unfamiliar industries.

    In a society like ours, where so many things are affected by the economy and where, frankly, many are money-minded, we can let our jobs and their perceived worth box us in.

    This can be dicey in an era of disappearing jobs. Who are we without the jobs we built our identities on?

    Are our jobs our public face? How do we respond in social settings, where people tend to say: "Hello, nice to meet you... What do you work as?"

    I sometimes wish people would ask me what I like to do instead of what my job is. I have never really enjoyed describing myself in terms of my deeply, darkly mysterious job.

    I prefer to reach for something more durable. I prefer that my identity is based on the notion of independence, and of wanting a solid enough rice bowl to take care of myself, and to even have a pocketful of change for life's desserts and extras while creating something beautiful.

    It is good to take pride in the specific aspects of my job. But if R2-D2 wants to take my place in the media industry, I hope that, by hanging my identity on something deeper, it will help me switch my mindset more quickly, to be less wobbly about entering an unfamiliar industry.

    If robots boot me out of my job tomorrow, I hope I can pick up skills and beep: "I, reboot."