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Wanted: AI experts to build the robots that will replace them

George Nott | Feb. 10, 2017
Demand for high-level tech skills is booming — but for how long?

Last month, global audit firm PwC posted a vacancy for an "AI Guru" at its Sydney office. The position required data analytics knowledge, experience in supervised and unsupervised machine learning, with basic programming and database ability an advantage.

It's one of a growing number of appeals for experts in artificial intelligence and machine learning, as businesses in Australia and worldwide scramble to exploit the fast-developing technologies. But as one recruiter told Computerworld, suitable candidates "are hardly falling off the tree".

"We get employers coming to us and saying they could employ all of our grad class, and that's just one company," says Professor of AI at UNSW, Toby Walsh. "There has to be more people and more understanding that these are the jobs of the future and there's plenty of opportunity for people to come in. It's not enough to satisfy demand."

The number of local job listings relating to artificial intelligence and machine learning increased by 65 per cent last year on the job site Indeed (while big data and cloud related postings decreased), said spokesperson Fiona Portet.

Data from Seek Australia similarly showed a 52 per cent increase in AI-related job posts between 2015 and last year. So high is the demand, while sharing the figures with Computerworld, Seek spokesperson Sarah Macartney mentioned that it, too, is "regularly seeking highly capable people in the fields of machine learning and artificial intelligence to join our team."

While the surge in demand has not yet reached its peak, the window of opportunity for those with advanced technology skills may not be open for long. And the same candidates currently in demand could be the ones that are closing it.

As PwC Australia analyst Jon Williams explains: "They might now be programming their robot replacement."

Window to a new world

Earlier this year, IBM CEO Ginny Rometty reassured the Davos World Economic Forum that AI technologies will not lead to a choice of "man or machine". Her words will come as little consolation to the 34 employees of a Japanese insurance firm who were fired last month, to be replaced by IBM's AI platform Watson.

More than a quarter of large Australian businesses - those with more than 1000 employees and $500 million annual revenue - said in response to a recent Infosys commissioned survey they will be making workers redundant and replacing them with AI technology. The study of 200 Australian companies also found that more Australians workers fear AI will lead to job losses (60 per cent) than any other nation surveyed.

Those in lower-wage jobs, suggests analysis by the White House Council of Economic Advisors, may be the first to suffer. But white-collar workers, particularly those in technology-related roles, will be next.


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