By bringing together prominent scholars and policy analysts from different disciplinary backgrounds, this workshop explores the social impacts of robotics and artificial intelligence on work, employment and unemployment. The Workshop will strengthen Australian research capacity regarding the digital capability and skills of Australian citizens to compete in a global economy increasingly shaped by technological automation.

The Workshop will investigate the social consequences of robotics and artificial intelligence, exploring the digital capability of Australia and the skills needed to compete in a global economy increasingly shaped by technological automation. The Workshop will consider how the capital-intensive and labor-saving dimensions of robotics and AI are transforming work/life balance; creating new opportunities and risks for employees; underpinning emergent mobile forms of employment; and, refashioning social relations with others. The principle outcome will be the publication of an edited volume. A report of the workshop’s findings will appear on the Hawke Research Institute’s website.

Technological innovations in networked, automated, artificial intelligence (AI) applications and robotic devices are unleashing a transformation in work and employment as far-reaching as the industrial revolution. Automation in the workforce is not new, but technological developments (especially breakthroughs in robotics) now threaten entire professions. Indeed, this global transition to a robot economy has been widely described as heralding a possible ‘jobless future’. The 2014 Federal Government Australian Industry Report estimates that up to half a million jobs – many of them tertiary educated positions – are at risk of automation.  The problem, however, extends well beyond Australia’s borders. A recent Oxford University study predicts that almost 50% of existing jobs in the UK are at risk as a result of robotics over the next two decades (Frey and Osborne, 2013).

The advent of robotics and AI is different to previous rounds of automation because of the likely metamorphosis of large sectors of employment: transportation (e.g. driverless vehicles, drones, warehousing); agriculture (harvesting), mining (drilling, transportation); healthcare (surgery robots, implants, prostheses, aged care assistants, diagnosing, medical procedures); finance and insurance (bookkeeping, claims processing); service sector and retail (self-serve automated systems); education (teaching devices); administration (report writing); personal assistants (mobile robotic apps). Owing to the sheer range of employment spheres that it will affect, the impact of robotics and AI on employment will be profound. In Australia the resource and agriculture sectors are currently one of the biggest users of robotics and AI. Every major miner in Australia is using or about to use ‘robo-trucks’—a job that once required the biggest workforce in the mining industry. Robotic trains and drilling are also on the way. At a time when resource prices are tumbling, robotics and AI reduces costs and increases efficiency. Other industries are likely to follow, with Deloitte (2012) suggesting that one-third of the Australian economy faces imminent and major digital disruption – a ‘short fuse, big bang’ situation. Furthermore, an Australian Government (2014) report recently estimated that as many as half a million accountants, supermarket cashiers, secretaries, typists and bank tellers – many of them in what are regarded as white-collar jobs – could be threatened by automation brought about by robotics and AI.

This ASSA Workshop will:

1. Investigate how the capital-intensive and labor-saving dimensions of robotics and AI transforms work/life balance; creates new opportunities and risks for employees; underpins emergent mobile forms of employment; and, refashions social relations with others.

2. Confront fundamental issues concerning mobile employment futures – addressing how alternative futures in Australia and beyond will be affected by technological innovations that are already underway.

In terms of the relevance of these transformations to current social science research and policy, it is increasinly clear that AI and robotic applications in the workplace underpin the economic success and social relations of increasing numbers of Australians. The ubiquity of remote working, smart work hubs, computer controlled manufacturing and driverless vehicles has brought AI and robotic technologies into public debate, but many Australians do not recognize that such technological innovations are more pervasive features of contemporary societies. The huge social changes underway, largely because of the acceleration of robotics and the rise of digital technology, mean we are entering a very different kind of social and technological world from even that in the current and very recent past. Getting social policy responses right to these challenges is crucial, and we can only do so by studying technological acceleration in an Australian context, but with emphasis on the global tangle of mobile opportunities and risks.

The Workshop will provide benefit through advancing understanding of the complex ways AI and robotics impact across the entire fabric of society – transforming relations of work and employment, business and organizational networks, personal and family life, and our plans for the future. The Workshop will contribute to a better understanding of the digital and automated revolution, and enable an integrated approach to understanding the social impact of robotics beyond current discussions of the displacement of unskilled and semi-skilled jobs in the economy.

As these issues are all complex and multifaceted, the Workshop puts scholars from a diverse array of disciplinary backgrounds together in dialogue with one another, in order to facilitate exchange and development of relevant knowledge. The Workshop also includes representatives from the community (e.g., the Foundation for Young Australians) and the private sector (e.g., organisations specializing in foresight analysis) whose insights and concerns are deserving of sustained consideration.

For more information, please contact:
Mr Murray Radcliffe
Deputy Director
murray.radcliffe [at]
+61 .2 62491788