It is put to us on that first Monday morning as an exciting innovation which will streamline our processes and free up time for the important stuff. This happens in our morning ‘huddle cuddle’, where at 9.15am on the dot our manager has us gather around in a loose circle and run through the day ahead – how many pieces of work there are to be processed, which queues will be prioritised, who is going to take lunch when. Most other days the huddle cuddle devolves into debate about The Bachelor and analyses of our manager’s internet dating DMs. This is the kind of place where our team of nine refers to each other as family. The kind of place with an A4 printout stuck to the kitchenette fridge that says if Britney Spears can get through 2007, you can get through today.
The job is a data-processing role at a small member-owned health insurance fund. The ‘data’ consists mostly of cancellation and policy change requests that come in via email, and the ‘processing’ consists mostly of moving these email requests around between different queues in an enterprise management system. I do not personally consider any of it to be important stuff.
At the interview I was asked not whether, but how much I enjoy repetitive, monotonous tasks. So the fact that I am to be replaced by a robot after fourteen months is not in itself unexpected. More surprising and deleterious to my self-esteem is that the robotic engineer leading the project is someone I know from high school.
Nathan is sitting at my desk when I return that Monday morning from annual leave. Seeing him there, my first thought is that I have been fired. That in my two-week absence, IT have pulled my browser history and discovered just how little work I do most days.
But as becomes clear during the morning’s somewhat tense huddle cuddle, Nathan is not replacing me – he is here only to oversee the development of my eventual replacement. Rather than be fired, I am to spend the remainder of my temporary contract teaching him how to perform my role so that he can teach his robot.
At the interview I was asked not whether, but how much I enjoy repetitive, monotonous tasks. So the fact that I am to be replaced by a robot is not unexpected.
I use the term robot both for dramatic effect and because that is how management refer to the project. More accurately, it is Robotic Process Automation, or RPA. Over lunch at the pub on that first day, Nathan explains RPA to me as software customised to mimic human behaviour in order to complete set tasks. Typically repetitive, monotonous tasks, like the ones from which I had claimed in my interview to derive such satisfaction and joy.
As Nathan talks, I shovel hot chips into my mouth and try to understand how it is that our paths diverged so dramatically. How it can be that six years out of high school, he is a robotic engineer while I work a job so boring and pointless it feels at times like a physical affliction?
The simple answer, of course, is that in those six years I flunked out of law school and got an Arts degree while he gained an in-demand qualification. A 2019 report commissioned by the Australian Computer Society found that Australia’s technology workforce grew 2.5 per cent per annum between 2011 and 2018, compared to overall labour market growth of 1.7 per cent per annum over the same period.
We are on the cusp of exponential technological advancement, sometimes referred to as ‘the second half of the chessboard’. The chessboard analogy is derived from folklore (and popularised by futurist Ray Kurzweil) and illustrates the power of (and problem with) exponential trends. In the story, a ruler, so impressed by the game of chess, invites its inventor to name his own reward. The inventor asks for a single grain of rice to be placed on the chessboard’s first square, and for it to be doubled on each subsequent square. By the 64th square, the amount of rice needed to fulfil this request would – so goes the story – form a pile far bigger than Mt Everest. The point of the analogy is to show that technological advancement, past a certain point, can have unintended consequences.
If this is the second half of the chessboard, then Nathan has astutely fashioned himself as an agile bishop, of unfailing utility to the powers that be, and protected against the fate of pawns like me.
The bot works tirelessly, without stopping for morning tea or for toilet breaks. It doesn’t call in sick when hungover or when the existential dread becomes too much.
Research published by the Committee of Economic Development of Australia (CEDA) in 2015 found that as much as 40 per cent of the Australian workforce – some 5 million disposable chess pieces – could be replaced by automation by the year 2035. It is a frightening statistic, particularly when considered in conjunction with the well-known fact that lower-paid, lower-skilled jobs are the ones most at risk of automation.
The software ‘bot’ is faster and more accurate than a human employee. It works tirelessly without stopping for morning tea or for toilet breaks or to linger by the photocopier. The bot doesn’t have a family to go home to each day at 5pm or to take on school holiday camping trips. It doesn’t call in sick when hungover or when the existential dread becomes too much. It doesn’t have to bother with performative Monday morning staff meetings, or daily huddle cuddles, or with Myers Briggs personality types. It doesn’t continually refresh Seek on its phone in the bathroom.
Unsurprisingly, word of the bot puts people at the health fund on edge. Like a sycophantic new-starter who continues after the first week to wear a tie and stay back late, everyone knows it will be impossible to compete with.
The clinical coders, the claims processors, staff from the audit team, and even from the contact centre, whisper in the lunchroom and by the downstairs vending machines, wondering if they’re next. In an attempt to boost morale, People and Culture announce an organisation-wide robot naming competition. The only condition is that the name must – to really scream technology – incorporate an Apple-style lowercase ‘i’.
From an internet list of fictional robot names, I submit ‘iRona’ – the name of the robotic maid in the original Richie Rich comics, stylised to meet the competition guidelines – because of its close proximity to the word ironic. Almost every other entrant submits ‘Mr Roboto’, and so I win by default.
It’s a pretty transparent attempt to humanise the bot and distract from its core objective, and one that’s in keeping with the positive spin continually put by employer bodies and the government around automation. Every sinister statistic is quickly followed by the same vague assurance – although it will displace vast numbers of workers, technology will also create space in which for entrepreneurs to thrive. But by the very nature of the concept, we cannot all be entrepreneurs.
For me, this job has functioned effectively as a stopgap. The rest of my team are permanent and have been with the organisation longer than I have. The fact of my replacement is a simple case of first on, last off. But I am – for the time being – securely employed. I am paid $1.40 more per hour than the law requires to sit in an air-conditioned office. I know I should feel grateful. I know too that I have options, that I can do something else when the time comes. That in this respect I have it better than many.
They assure us that automation technology will create space for entrepreneurs to thrive. But we cannot all be entrepreneurs.
One of my colleagues moved here from New Zealand as a teenager and cannot become an Australian citizen – and therefore cannot feasibly go to university – until he has met a certain income threshold for four consecutive years. Another colleague works part-time, having finally struck something of a balance between earning a salary and spending it all on childcare for her three-year-old daughter. Another is a few years off minimum retirement age and has myriad health concerns. For these colleagues, when their jobs too are eventually supplanted by iRona, entrepreneurship does not seem an entirely helpful solution.
By this stage, I have enrolled externally in a postgraduate teaching degree. Teaching seems to me untouchable, a profession immune – surely – to the trend of automation. What I do not yet know is that researchers are already experimenting with ‘bot-teachers’, with the engagement of learners through algorithms.
As part of my education degree, I complete a mandatory subject called Teachers as Leaders and Entrepreneurial Thinkers. The assessment task involves writing a proposal for an ‘end-user validated innovation’ accompanied by a reflection of personal growth. I approach the subject with dread, visualising the classroom as a Shark Tank-style arena in which I have to critique children’s inventions, reject their ideas for flying scooters and fairy floss sushi, and grade them on their ability to turn profits and keep small businesses afloat.
A 2016 CSIRO report entitled ‘Tomorrow’s Digitally Enabled Workforce’ posits a hypothetical day in the life of ‘Jack’, a secondary school teacher in the year 2035, the same year by which CEDA expects 40 per cent of Australian jobs to have been automated. Jack’s job has become one of facilitator, with instruction occurring via the interactive digital lectures that are delivered to his students as part of the standardised curriculum. Any hint that he may be less than satisfied in a job so diminished by technology is tempered by the otherwise irrelevant detail that Jack has recently chosen to reprioritise family over work. No profession, it seems, will be wholly immune to iRona and her robotic comrades.
I visualise the classroom as a Shark Tank-style arena in which I grade children on their ability to turn profits and keep small businesses afloat.
Bleak though the prospect is of me in the year 2035 as Teacher/Entrepreneur/Facilitator at the helm of a classroom full of child tycoons, I persevere with the semester, doing most of the set readings and assignments while at work, when I’m not writing job applications.
Over the next few months, Nathan takes the processes I show him and creates a series of codified rules and commands for iRona to follow to complete them. Click open, drag and drop across the screen, press that icon again, and now that one. Repeat. It takes iRona much longer than expected to learn the processes. Nathan talks frustratedly about glitches and bugs. Eventually he has to call in his supervisor who decides to appoint a second engineer to the project. Nathan seems stressed. We stop going to the pub for lunch.
The first time iRona successfully completes a process from start to finish, we are all summoned to gather around the screen and watch. Having been put at ease by her cute name and empty reassurances from management, my colleagues clap and cheer and congratulate Nathan. Not wanting to seem bitter, I join in, grimly cheering my own obsolescence.
After the health fund, as I chip away at the teaching degree, I work for a while at a union. One that covers professionals in the public sector, and in the community services and information technology industries. My new office sits opposite a string of other trade union offices, and around the corner from the automation company’s headquarters.
I run into Nathan once near work and he tells me that the RPA project has hit a roadblock and been put on hold, with a casual hired to take my place in the interim. But, he says, you know what? Before all that, they renamed it Mr Roboto.