Robots and computer automation will transform work within two decades

My first paid work was in the Automotive Plant division of the PMG – later to become Telstra and Australia Post. I copied figures from operators’ returns onto a summary sheet, added them by hand and had them typed up to be sent off somewhere. I was told they would contribute to the graphs on the wall of a controlling engineer in Melbourne.

There were no electronic calculators. Engineers used slide rules.

That was in 1963. In 1964 I worked in a university library, where they were automating their loan system with punch cards and knitting needles. When I joined the Education Department in 1969 we had small committees because the minutes had to be produced using extra sheets of carbon paper in a typewriter. Photocopiers had not yet arrived.

Since then robotics, automation and communications technology have brought vast changes to the work place in all sorts of fields. Another tsunami of change is about to hit us according to Oxford University expert Michael Osbourne. He said that 47% of jobs in the US were at high risk of being replaced by automation within a generation.

“Increasingly, algorithms are able to perform not just routine manual labour in the way they have done in the past but also cognitive labour in a way that makes it much more difficult to draw that line between what is automatable and not,” he told 612 ABC Brisbane.

Jobs linked to data entry, accountancy and heavy vehicle driving would dramatically decrease and in some cases vanish completely.

Driverless vehicles would be made possible as massive low-cost data storage capacities allowed for the creation of highly detailed 3D maps – an area already being explored by large mining companies, he said.

The more creative you are, the safer you are from automation.

He stresses that he is talking about technological capacity over a 20-year time period. What happens in reality will depend on social acceptability and other factors.

The construction industry is one sector being affected already. Modules of bathrooms and kitchens are being prefabricated offsite. In fact 30 stories of a building can be put up in 15 days as sections come pre-wired and pre-plumbed.

John D has also kindly sent me a link to ABC Fact Check which has detailed 11 ways the Australian workplace has changed. Since the statistics show that readers tend not to follow links, I’ve transported the text here, for your interest.


Fifty years ago the expectation was that a man went to work and a woman stayed at home. But that has changed dramatically. In the years between 1961 and 2011, the proportion of women in the workforce almost doubled from 35 per cent to 59 per cent. Until 1966 married women were not employed by theAustralian Public Service and single women were forced to “retire” when they married.

In the 1960s Australia was moving from being a primary producer still “riding on the sheep’s back” to an economy with a strong manufacturing base. In 1966 more than 25 per cent of the workforce were in manufacturing, but that’s fallen in the past few decades. Now just 8 per cent of workers are in manufacturing.

The rise and fall of trade unions in Australia has been dramatic. In 1912, 30 per cent of workers were members of trade unions, by 1961 that had reached 61 per cent, but by 1999 that had fallen to 26 per cent, and by 2011 it had dwindled to around 18 per cent.

Child labour was not uncommon for much of the 20th century. In 1940, 6 per cent of all factory workers were under the age of sixteen, fifteen in NSW. The number fell sharply after World War II to 2 per cent of factory workers in 1948 and less than 1 per cent by 1968 as higher levels of employment for adults let them keep their children in school and out of the workforce longer.

One in 10 full-time workers in Australia earns more than an average of $2,548 per week, and one in 10 earns $800 per week or less. The rest are somewhere in between.

The Australian workforce is split fairly evenly along gender lines. Of the approximately 10 million employees in Australia, 50.5 per cent are women and 49.5 per cent are men. But men still tend to earn a lot more than women – an average of $1,429.80 for male employees, compared with $940.20 for female employees. That in part is due to the number of hours worked: 76.6 per cent of men work full time compared with 43.7 per cent of women.

Mining is the best paid industry, where average earnings are $2,499.60 per week, compared with the lowest paid industry, accommodation and food services, where workers make an average of $561.60 per week. The largest industry is health care and social assistance, making up 12.8 per cent of employees.

Managing is the best-paid occupation, with average weekly earnings of $2,113.80. Sales workers get the lowest average pay, with just $628.60 per week.

The occupations with the highest rates of work-related injuries and illness are machinery operators and drivers, followed by community and personal service workers. The industries with the highest rate of work-related illness or injury are manufacturing, followed by transport/postal/warehousing and agriculture/forestry/fishing.


Education matters. Of Australians with a tertiary or higher education, 83 per cent have a paid job, compared with 59 per cent of those without an upper secondary education.

Australian jobs are pretty secure compared with other nations. Australian workers have a 4.4 per cent chance of losing their job, which is lower than the OECD average of 5.3 per cent.

2 thoughts on “Robots and computer automation will transform work within two decades”

  1. When I started work in 1960 things were a bit more sophisticated than what you experienced in Qld Brian. (We did have access to a photo copier if we were willing to drive down to the steelworks and I did have an electric calculator on my desk. Can’t remember whether it was 1963 or 1965 when i started using computers.)
    That aside we have both seen dramatic changes in the way things are done and the virtual disappearance of jobs like tracer and typist. In terms of computers the interesting thing is that despite the predictions that computers would lead to massive job losses what really happened was that they allowed us to collect and process much more data that, at least in theory, allowed us to make better decisions rather than reducing decision people hours.
    The other thing that happened was that the jobs that disappeared often weren’t the ones that we thought would disappear. In the case of your first job I suspect that it was your job that disappeared while the typist job morphed into someone who collected the data and used the computer to convert it into graphs, KPI’s etc and at least a draft report.
    I organized a robotics conference in 1981 and at that stage robots were well established in the manufacturing industry as a tool for performing repetitive tasks. Since then developments in sensors, computing capacity and learning programmes have made robotics more and more effective and freed them from being a tool for repetitive tasks where the bits and pieces being manipulated had to be presented in a particular way to allow the robot to pick them up.
    My take is that robotics will support a move from mass to micro scale production as well as find a whole new raft of uses that may, in fact create jobs.

  2. Queensland education was being run on a shoe string when I joined.

    There seems to be an insatiable appetite for computer, or so-called ITC specialists at present. Recently I heard that there were 100,000 vacancies. People were being given jobs before they had completed their degrees.

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