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We talk a lot here at BaSE about the changing business environment. So there was no surprise to read the report by The Times on the decline of the secretary. According to the newspaper, since 2001 the number of secretaries in London has declined by 44% and across the UK as a whole, the percentage is closer to 47%. That's 163,000 job losses in a little more than a decade.
But should we be surprised? Exponential growth of technology is as disruptive as rapidly changing consumer behaviour, a fact made fundamentally clear by the statistics above. The new Blomkamp movie Chappie, profiling the emotional rollercoaster of a police droid who works out human behaviour (hats off to the droid for achieving something I for one still struggle with) may seem like futuristic fiction but artificial intelligence is closer than we think. Clearly those 163,000 secretaries and millions of man hours have been replaced by something? Yes…algorithms. Artificial intelligence expert and co-founder of Singularity University, Ray Kurzweil, predicts that by 2029 artificial intelligence will be able to do everything better than humans – thankfully for me, I shall be just about ready to retire and so the idea of having my every need taken care of by an army of droids is quite pleasant. For those about to embark on a fulfilling life, the concept may not be as attractive.
Historically automation was a threat only to the shop floor – now it is edging into the office, tipping us out of our ergonomic seating and out through the revolving doors. So will the PA survive? Some would argue that technology cannot overthrow the trusty gatekeeper protecting the great and the good from the outside world. But with coffee machines whipping up the latte, Uber providing the transport, Siri dialling the phone and drones dropping off the stationary supplies, gatekeeping may be the only thing left.
And what of the social impact? With women accounting for 49% of the workforce but 75% of the five C's (caring, catering, cashiering, cleaning and clerical) is technology likely to take efforts to achieve diversity backwards?
One thing is for sure, Chappie's iron fist would no doubt put a lid on any old fashioned 'hands on' behaviour.