• Are robots coming for your job?

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    GREG NAVARRO

    GREG NAVARRO

    If you go to this page on the BBC website—http://www.bbc.com/news/technology-34066941 – you will find a tool that will allow you to check if your job is at risk of automation. On that page, you will be asked to type out the general term for what it is you do for a living, and after one click, the page will let you know the likelihood, in stark percentages, of you losing your job to a robot.

    I tried it out. If I set aside my senior management role and instead identify myself as a certified public accountant (which I am), then according to that page, there’s a 95 percent chance that I will eventually be replaced by a robot.

    The methodology used for that page is based on a 2014 report that Deloitte worked on with two Oxford University academics: Carl Frey and Michael Osborne. Although the report, entitled Agiletown: The relentless march of technology and London’s response, focuses on that specific part of the world, it raises important points that could be applied to the Philippine context.

    Take this, for example: In that publication, Deloitte suggested that 30 percent of jobs in London are at high risk of automation in the next 10 to 20 years. These are the jobs in office and administrative support; sales and services; transportation; construction and extraction; and manufacturing—all sectors that we also have here in the Philippines. And if you notice, these are lower paying jobs, which the Oxford researchers estimated are more than eight times more likely to be replaced by automation than higher paying jobs.

    It’s a sobering thought for a country that is struggling to produce broad-based job growth and is looking to a revitalized manufacturing sector to generate much needed employment. And it might be worth noting that our close neighbors Singapore, Malaysia, and Thailand already have programs that anticipate and encourage the use of robotics mainly in the manufacturing sector.

    There’s more.

    Another article about automation written by Tom Davenport, a Fellow of the MIT Center for Digital Business and an independent senior advisor at Deloitte Analytics, looks at the impact of technology on the outsourcing sector.

    In his piece, Will cognitive automation spell the end of outsourcing? Davenport writes that the early adopters of robotic process automation (RPA) have generally achieved impressive returns on investments (ROI). One telecom company he cited, for example, automated 160 different processes and saw an ROI that ranged from 650 to 800 percent. According to Davenport, these processes are typically small and administrative in nature, the same ones that often get moved to services outsourcers.

    He doesn’t have the numbers for it, but Davenport notes that many of the RPA projects he’s privy to have involved reductions in headcount at offshore outsourcing firms. And while right now, the processes that are being automated are the structured, codifiable ones, he is already seeing a trend toward more cognitive (less robotic) automation, hence the term ‘cognitive automation.’

    Business processes involving a high degree of knowledge and expertise, such as legal document review, can already be partially automated. Vendors that used to offer only structured automation software are now claiming to have products that have the ability to learn and even interact in human language. Microsoft founder Bill Gates, in a Q&A session on Reddit, said that IT programming work is “safe for now,” which means it might not be so in the future.

    What does this mean for a country that relies heavily on the BPO sector as a contributor to growth? What will happen to job opportunities here when countries like the United States start using cognitive automation in a larger scale to bring back some jobs from offshoring locations?

    For Davenport, cognitive automation has a negative impact on services outsourcers, but the story doesn’t have to be all bleak for the Philippines, especially if we focus on being agile.

    As Deloitte notes in Agiletown, tasks that require a high level of perception and manipulation will remain the province of humans: people can see and respond to circumstances in ways that robots and computers still cannot. Jobs in areas such as senior management and financial services; computers; engineering and science; education; community services; the arts and media; and healthcare are also at least risk from computerization.

    For the local BPO sector, it will be critical to beef up its capabilities in the engineering, animation, and game development sectors—the three smallest contributors to overall BPO revenue as of IBPAP’s statistics for 2014. These areas may be where our long-term competitive advantage in outsourcing lies.

    So while robots may, to a certain extent, be gunning for some of our jobs, this isn’t the beginning of the end for the human worker. For all its capabilities and advances, technology is still no match for the ability of a person to inspire, to empathize, to imagine.

    The author is the Managing Partner & CEO of Navarro Amper & Co., the local member firm of Deloitte Southeast Asia Ltd., a member firm of Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu Ltd.—comprising Deloitte practices operating in Brunei, Cambodia, Guam, Indonesia, Lao PDR, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.

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