Job creation in the Middle East remains paramount as a lever to enable prosperity and sustainability. However, advances in automation, technology and specifically robotics and AI, continue to have a significant impact on jobs and on the workforce. So, how much will be replacement of humans vs. an augmentation of skills? And is it possible that Hollywood-like dystopian scenarios, such as the Matrix or Terminator, could become a reality?

The truth is, the threat of jobs being replaced by new technology has always been there. From the invention of the printing press in the 1450s retiring the jobs of thousands of copyists across Europe and Asia, to the arrival of the IBM7090 mainframe in the early 1960s into the NASA Mercury missions, doing away with human computers virtually overnight. Technology replacing humans is a basic fact of life.

So, if this has been happening for centuries, why is the current revolution any different? Well, fundamentally for three reasons:

  1. The cycle time for new technology adoption is getting smaller and smaller, having decreased at least 20x fold in the last 500 years.
  2. Machines are getting better at non-repeatable, highly complex tasks such as autonomous driving, medical diagnosis or article writing. A first-time occurrence.
  3. Technology-led productivity improvement has always been followed by new employment. At least until the dawn of the 21st century; a period during which productivity growth has remained robust but employment has stalled, according to some studies.

The most common thought on the increased use of digitization and AI in the workplace is the threat of job replacement. Around 38% of jobs in the U.S. are at risk of being automated, and 37% of people are worried about automation putting their jobs at risk.

However, even if the threat of job replacement is real and significant, the upside from job skills augmentation outweighs the downside of job replacement, provided that the speed at which humans can learn new skills and augment old ones significantly increases. Should we be bullish or bearish in this context? Bullish appears to be the answer.

Impact On The Healthcare Industry

In the Healthcare industry, AI and robotics will impact jobs across the sector, from MDs to nursing staff, to allied health professionals and support staff.

The biggest impact from AI on MDs will likely be in medical diagnosis. Today, AI tools have already shown better accuracy at diagnosis than MDs. For instance, IBM Watson’s lung cancer diagnosis success rate is 90%, compared to 50% for MDs. While this will require human doctors to liaise with and trust AI as part of the diagnosis process, AI will also allow doctors to focus on non-routine tasks and treatment options, relying on highly accurate diagnosis completed by a robot. The workload of MDs per patient will therefore be reduced, which will help shorten waiting times for an appointment. Medical research completed by MDs will also be supported by AI, which can scan thousands of documents and identify trends for further analysis.

For nurses and allied health professionals, many routine tasks will be replaced by robots. Examples of this already happening are robots that can draw blood or move patients around. The “RoBear” for instance, developed by the RIKEN-SRK Collaboration Center for Human-Interactive Robot Research and Sumitomo Riko Company, can lift and move patients from their bed to chairs or wheelchairs. AI will reduce pressure on the supply of allied health professionals and enable them to cope with an aging population. The focus for human employees will shift towards care-giving roles and away from repetitive tasks.

Several medical specialities are at risk of being significantly replaced by robots over the next 10-20 years, with anaesthesiology and surgery at the top of the list and paediatrics, obstetrics and gynaecology at the bottom.

Immediate Priorities

Healthcare sector employees should focus their energies on jobs that require truly human qualities (e.g. care delivery and therapy), which are difficult to be replaced, at least for now, by a robot. In addition, they should seek to develop skills that optimize the human/machine interface, so their chances to either program algorithms or work well alongside robots and AI applications (e.g. in surgery) are improved.

Healthcare sector employers should re-think their value chains and learn from “digital natives”, i.e. companies that are born with innate AI and RPA elements into their product and service delivery models. They should also put in place programs to upskill their workforce in those areas that show the greatest potential for job augmentation.

Looking Out Into The Future: Blurring Lines

While 73% of people think that technology can never replace the human mind, 70% would consider using treatments to enhance their brain or body to improve employment prospects in the future—demonstrating a blurring of the lines between human and robot.

One could argue this is only a logical extension of what we already do: today we use glasses or contact lenses, hearing aids, smart prosthetic limbs, exoskeletons and increasingly more advanced technology to enhance our senses and capabilities.

It is not too far-fetched to say humans in the future will become increasingly more cyborg-like. The future, in the healthcare industry and also elsewhere, is not likely to be a binary us-vs-them world. It is far more likely to be a gradual spectrum of enhanced humans working alongside intelligent robots.