Robo Copy. Why I’m not worried about being replaced by a machine.

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October 26, 2015

2324674522_ca3739c9ca - Copy

Robots, androids, cyborgs.  They’re coming for our jobs.  It’s the stuff of science fiction – watch Robo Cop, iRobot, Bladerunner, Ex Machina, A.I. Artificial Intelligence, The Matrix if you need a reminder.  But it’s also rapidly becoming science fact.  The number of occupations that will be affected is surprisingly extensive.  But I think there will still be a need for skilled copywriters.

The long term picture

Millions of medieval peasants have been replaced by a few guys driving big tractors.  Countless craftsmen laboriously making things by hand have been replaced by relatively small numbers of workers in factories.  A single drone can do the work of a complete regiment of infantrymen.

That’s not all to the bad.  Productivity has soared and new jobs have been created.  Would you rather be digging turnips by hand in the wind and rain, or listening to customer complaints in a call centre?  It debatable.

But one thing is sure.  The dawning realisation that your services are no longer required, and that a machine can do your job better, faster and cheaper, is not a pleasant experience.

The immediate future

Increasing numbers will go through this pain in the very near future, on a scale and at a speed that’s unprecedented.  An article in a recent issue of Money Week reports that “There are growing concerns that…large numbers of people could be put out of work permanently. A recent study by Oxford University and Deloitte estimated that better machines and faster computers could eliminate more than a third of currently existing occupations in the next two decades. Another study by the Committee for Economic Development of Australia put the figure at 40%.”

The here and now

It’s already happening.  The Money Week article adds that “According to the International Federation of Robotics the number of industrial robots globally more than doubled from 70,000 in 2005 to nearly 180,000 by 2013. It is big business, with Transparency Market Research predicting that the market for such robots will grow by more than 6% a year from $29bn in 2013 to nearly $35bn by 2020.”

C-3PO will take your order now

While most robots are currently employed on automotive production lines they’re now coming out of the factory and into our everyday lives.   So whose jobs are most at risk?

The Oxford/Deloitte study puts all food service jobs at a high risk of being automated – they reckon there’s an 82% chance of human workers involved in food processing being rendered obsolete by robots, while waiters have a 90% risk of seeing their jobs vanish.

Really? !  There’s now a robot that can prepare, cook and serve up to 360 burgers an hour and pay for itself within two years.   The UK-based Robot Pub Group (RPG), supplies machines to bars and pubs around the world.  These allow customers to order food via tablet and pour their own beer using special self-service machines.

A Japanese sushi chain operates 262 restaurants that are almost entirely automated, and very cheap.  Human managers simply monitor everything by CCTV from a central command centre.

Hold still while R2D2 removes your appendix

In the Alien prequel Prometheus one of the goriest moments features a caesarean abortion performed by robotic arms in a fully automated operating pod.

Money Week reports that “Since 2000 more than two million procedures have been carried out by surgical machines” adding that “Researchers at Berkeley (University of California) are working on automated surgical assistants. They have developed techniques that allow robots to “learn” to carry out routine tasks – like suturing and knot tying – to a far higher standard than humans.”

Hospital pharmacy is also ripe for automation. Frustrated at high human error rates, one hospital in San Francisco has developed a system that automatically sorts medicines then uses another robot to transport them around the hospital to doctors.  In japan they’ve developed a robot to move frail patients from a bed to a gurney, or place them in a standing position.

Stepford Wives are go

Compliant android women who love housework and never get a headache – that was the premise of the 1974 film The Stepford Wives.  But now the idea of robots who clean and cook better than a little woman is rapidly becoming reality.

The Roomba robot vacuum cleaner was launched by iRobot in 2002.  They’ve developed similar robots that can scrub and mop hard floors, or clean your gutters and pool.

Then there’s Friendly Robotics’ Robomow (mows the lawn) and Litter Robot (cleans up after pets).

Moley Robotics is even developing a robot chef that captures the movements of a skilled chef then replicates them.  The idea is to create a library of recipes produced by master chefs that can be implemented at the touch of a button.

Automation in the creative industries

Can’t happen?  It already has.  Where have all the drawing boards gone?  Replaced by Macs.  Who commissions photography any longer?  Nobody – they go straight to Getty, istock or Corbis.

All those emails you get in your inbox.  Are they sent by a real human?  No.  A computer somehow got your details and the automated customer relationship management system has kicked in.  You go on a website for collagen supplements, then one for fleece jackets, then one for flights to Amsterdam.  Suddenly you’re seeing pop ups for collagen supplements, fleece jackets and hotels in Amsterdam.  That’s just the cookies doing their job.

Computers are telling copywriters which words to use – it’s called SEO.  And this has led to the rise of content mills which employ “large numbers of freelance writers to generate large amounts of textual content which is specifically designed to satisfy algorithms for maximal retrieval by automated search engines” (Wikipedia).  Content created on a production line and writers being paid $3.50 with a keyword density target to hit.

Am I bovvered?

No.  Because that report from Oxford/Deloitte reassured me that there will always be a demand for true copywriting – as opposed to cheap mass-produced content.

Money Week summed up the findings like this: “If you want to keep the upper hand on the androids, you want to find a job that requires creativity, that employs strong social skills and empathy, and requires being skilled in the arts of persuasion.”

So, hopefully, I should be gainfully employed for a while yet.  We’ll see….

 

photo credit: <a href=”http://www.flickr.com/photos/45421351@N00/2324674522″>psculpture</a> via <a href=”http://photopin.com”>photopin</a> <a href=”https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/”>(license)</a>

 

6 Comments
  1. Carolyn November 1, 2015 Reply

    Really enjoyed reading this blog post. Thanks for sharing. Surely there will come a day when we are all replaced by robots!

  2. Jim November 4, 2015 Reply

    Glad you enjoyed it Carolyn! You might be right...let's see.

  3. Mike November 11, 2015 Reply

    SEO's fine. It'll (sometimes) drive traffic. We could have a conversation about the quality of that traffic. But to engage, inspire and ultimately sell, you need good ol' human emotion and only a decent writer can do that.

    • Jim November 11, 2015 Reply

      I bet they're working on a robot that can emote. Just like the replicants in Bladerunner - I love that film, partly because in it the humans have become the ones without emotion (coming true already?) and the Replicants are the ones who fall in love and speak poetry.

  4. Sam November 11, 2015 Reply

    It's all true Jim and new technology is, in most cases, something to be embraced rather than feared. The disappearance of all those drawing boards you referred to has allowed the people who used to fill their day redrawing revision after revision of things that had already been created to morph into creative problem solvers rather than "draftsmen". ( Well, some of them. )

    Curiously though, my final year dissertation in the early 80s was entitled, "Industrial Automation and its potential for change." Many of the potential changes discussed at that time are only now beginning to see wider adoption, yet the Internet and all it has spawned didn't exist at that time.

    There is a lesson there somewhere about trying to predict the future but you are right about creativity being a uniquely human trait but for how long?

  5. Jim November 11, 2015 Reply

    Good stuff Sam. I think I will have shuffled off this mortal coil long before creativity can be automated (contradiction in terms??).

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