Ready for the robots

The 2007 Class Act recipients, pictured with then Prime Minister Helen Clark and former Otago...
The 2007 Class Act recipients, pictured with then Prime Minister Helen Clark and former Otago Daily Times editor Murray Kirkness, are now aged in their mid to late 20s. They include, clockwise from top left, Rachel Stephen, Aaron Hendry, Ross Haines, Stephanie Miller, Blair Kippenberger (on the motorcycle at far left), Gordon Edwards and Will Harris. Photos: ODT/supplied.
The rise of robotics and artificial intelligence will transform employment in the future. Kim Dungey catches up on the Otago Daily Times’ 2007 Class Act recipients and finds out if they are ready.

Increasing automation will improve some jobs and create new opportunities but could negatively affect our personal lives, say a group of former Otago school pupils now aged in their mid to late 20s.

Many of the 56 people who received Otago Daily Times Class Act awards as high school pupils 10 years ago have thought about the effect that advances in technology and artificial intelligence will have on their careers and see them as positive.

A look at the recipients

Where are they now?

The innovations have the potential to automate tasks that are tedious, labour intensive or dangerous, freeing people up to focus on the more interesting and fulfilling aspects of their jobs, they say.

They also welcome efficiencies that would lead to a shorter working week, giving people more time to spend with their families and to pursue their own interests.

However, a few worry about what will be lost if more of our everyday tasks become self-service or automated and more of our communication is facilitated through technology, rather than face-to-face.Teaching fellow Susan Wardell is not concerned about automation but is concerned about a devaluing of humanities in general, saying we all risk becoming like machines "if we lose this critical and creative part of ourselves".

Diana Abercrombie (nee Mockford), formerly of Taieri College, chose ‘‘love’’, one of three ’07...
Diana Abercrombie (nee Mockford), formerly of Taieri College, chose ‘‘love’’, one of three ’07 Class Act recipients to do so. Photo: supplied

And some believe serious consideration will have to be given to a universal basic income. Four years ago, Oxford University’s Dr Carl Frey and Prof Michael Osborne estimated 47% of US jobs were at risk from computerisation within two decades. Most in the group think their careers will still exist in 20 years but with significant changes.

Those working in finance say more powerful analytical tools are already streamlining some manual work. As part of her PhD, research scientist Bryony Telford systematically knocked down every gene in the genome, one at a time, to try to find ones that cancer cells needed to survive; a task that would have been nearly impossible without robotics.

"Yes, I’ve thought about it. No, I don’t worry that it will affect my teaching career," Emma Chatterton says, adding that teachers do, however, need to constantly think about the type of working environment they are preparing pupils for.

"A lot of reliable current and past jobs are not going to be there for my generation," says mechanical engineering student Harriet Miller-Brown, who expects to be making the tools and support systems to automate tasks.

"But I think that lots of new jobs will develop to service a changing world."

Senior audit analyst Al Isger views automation as an opportunity rather than a threat but believes people need to realistically evaluate the risks that might jeopardise the existence of a career before pursuing it. This can be difficult if it is something they are passionate about but is important if they want a career that provides a return on their investment, he says.

Others feel no machine can replace the human part of their jobs. They include those working in the health sector, an account manager who says personal relationships are fundamental to building business partnerships and an emergency management adviser who says her work requires empathy.

Sophie Pinto-Raetz feels both excited and nervous about the so-called fourth industrial revolution, which encompasses everything from quantum computing to 3-D printing and autonomous vehicles: "I would hope that businesses and governments would take responsibility for upskilling those who have been displaced by the  advances in technology and help keep everyone moving forward."

Sarah Paterson-Hamlin says the most exciting technological breakthroughs are those which can provide clean water, electricity, the internet and heating to those who have previously gone without.

Michael Gilling feels the advances could also be an answer to feeding the poor, curing diseases and combating climate change but hopes they are used for the good of everyone, "not just for a select few".

The annual Class Act awards, first presented in 2000 and held again this week, recognise young people across the newspaper’s circulation area. The pupils are selected by their schools based on excellence in a variety of areas, including academic, sporting and cultural achievement.

Prestigious scholarships enabled 2007 recipients Ross Haines and Emma Chatterton to study in England; Haines at Oxford and Chatterton at Cambridge.

Brent Ford is head of English at his old high school, working alongside seven East Otago High School staff who taught him: "Initially, there was a little awkwardness," he explains, "but they have all been terrific mentors and become great colleagues and friends."

Bryony Telford is characterising miRNA — small ribonucleic acid molecules — that are promising candidates for treating cancer.

Sam Buchan helped produce three-dimensional graphics for major golf events such as the Ryder Cup, the British Open and the PGA Championship before becoming a lawyer.

Several have had their work published and others run their own clothing, building and food delivery businesses.

The group also includes Silver Fern Jane Watson, and basketballer Janet Main, who has played for both New Zealand and the Cook Islands. Harriet Miller-Brown was a member of the New Zealand ski team for six years while Lucy Strack represented New Zealand at four world rowing championships before taking up triathlons.

Sarah Battson is a physiotherapist for the NZ Winter Olympics ski and snowboard team and Queensland Cricket Association assistant curator Tony Potter says he is in his "dream job, rubbing shoulders with the world’s best former and current cricketers every day".

A decade after leaving school, others are also realising long-held ambitions.

Annie-Kate Williams says her dream was "to help people and help people towards God" but she still isn’t sure what that will look like: "I will be a minister soon but I won’t be a ‘normal’ minister and I don’t think I will be in a ‘normal’ looking church."

Haines, who was man of the match in a one-day cricket match between Oxford and Cambridge universities, says playing on the main ground at Lords would be a dream come true for any cricketer.

April Moffat, one of 18 in the group who are married and eight who are parents, says nothing beats marrying and becoming a mother.

Contractor Michael Gilling has prioritised lifestyle and relationships over career, scaling down and living with less, while junior doctor Brigitte Hollander says work-life balance has become increasingly important to her over the past 10 years.

Most of the group have spent time overseas and plan more travel in the future but 46 of the 56 recipients are at present living in New Zealand, 16 of them in Dunedin.

Nine are teachers, seven work in the health sector and four are practising law. Eight others are still studying full-time.

Almost all the group say they will vote in next month’s general election, with policies on health, housing affordability, education and the environment seen as priorities.

Sarah Paterson-Hamlin was struck by the increase in poverty and homelessness she found when she returned to New Zealand earlier this year after three years in Scotland and says policies that tackle inequality are important to her.

She also hopes New Zealand will increase its refugee quota and "turn away from the kind of anti-immigration, anti-refugee rhetoric that has been so damaging overseas".

Asked what would be the first thing he would do if appointed Prime Minister, Buchan said he would either resign and appoint Highlanders first-five eighth Marty Banks or increase support for organisations trying to find novel and sustainable answers to our problems.

Rosie Hill would "get on the phone to President Trump for a yarn about global environmental issues".

Others say they would increase money for mental health, fund a new hospital in Dunedin, enforce a sugar tax, make child care cheaper and address skill shortages.

Sophie Pinto-Raetz would look at developing Queenstown as the silicon valley of the southern hemisphere while Richard Cooke would hold referenda on euthanasia and the legalisation and regulation of marijuana, believing politicians can be reluctant to tackle such issues but New Zealand society is ready to address them.

Promotions at work, buying their own homes and travelling have been highlights for many in the past 10 years. Daniel Lawrence hiked the Inca Trail and visited Easter Island, Cuba, Japan and Vietnam, while Simon Wallace travelled to the United States three times after university, ticking off the NHL, NBA and NFL (national hockey, basketball and football competitions).

William Sew Hoy continues to be inspired by the "selflessness, commitment and humility" of the oral and maxillofacial surgeons he assisted in theatre in his first year as a dentist.

Diana Abercrombie underwent a gastric bypass in 2012 and lost more than 80kg, then became a trust member and national conference co-ordinator for the Weight Loss Surgery Trust NZ.

Sarah Paterson-Hamlin is proud of passing the oral exam for her PhD, which was held over Skype at midnight while she was 38 weeks pregnant, and says volunteering for a short time at the "Jungle" refugee camp in Calais was a "life-altering" experience.

Luke Hastie, a senior staff nurse at London’s St Thomas’ Hospital, was working on the hospital’s emergency floor during the Westminster Bridge terrorist attack in March and heartened to see how every employee, whether on duty or not, was willing to help.

His view on technology is that it will lead to a better quality of life for patients but that nurses’ long hours and busy shifts won’t end "any time soon".

Solicitor Rosie Hill was told at an open lecture a few years ago that there would be no such thing as solicitors in 30 years and has a bet with her husband, a farmer, about whose job will become redundant first.

Tasks such as research and basic communications will become more automated but there will always be room for strategic litigators and project advisers so she is focusing on honing those skills, she says.

"Above all, it is important to be adaptable and nimble in this changing environment, so in a way I am lucky to be a millennial."

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