The robots are coming: Can you future-proof your career? - Gulf Business
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The robots are coming: Can you future-proof your career?

The robots are coming: Can you future-proof your career?

Jeanette Teh explains how you can prepare yourself for the future of work


“The genie is out of the bottle. We need to move forward on artificial intelligence development but we also need to be mindful of its very real dangers. I fear that AI may replace humans altogether.” ~ Stephen Hawking, Wired Magazine, 2017.

The world renowned theoretical physicist, who remarkably battled the amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) for fifty years, passed away last week, but his brilliant work and words live on.

While the emergence of robots does not spell an ominous future for humans as portrayed in dystopian movies, it does mean that we need to be prepared for and understand the future of work.

With various reports indicating that as much as a third to almost half of current jobs (according to an Oxford university study) could be automated by 2030, we should assess the vulnerability of our jobs and understand the trends that will be shaping them.

Read: The changing face of the workforce


The jobs most at risk of being automated are those involving repetitive skills, such as data entry, book keeping, and factory work. McKinsey estimates that these roles, common in manufacturing, food, retail, and accommodation industries account for a fifth of the global labour force, about 800 million workers.

However, it is not only the lower-skilled and lower paying jobs that are at risk. Here, in the UAE, we already have a self-driving metro, and there are plans to have artificial intelligence (AI) replace police on the streets and to phase out immigration officers by 2020.

Even highly skilled careers in the accounting, medical, and legal professions are at a risk of being disrupted. LawGeex, which uses AI to automate the review of contracts, organised a competition where 20 top lawyers competed against AI to evaluate contracts. AI outscored the humans in every measure, not only having a 10 per cent higher accuracy rating (95 per cent vs. 85 per cent), but demolishing its human counterparts in speed – 26 seconds compared to humans’ 92 minutes in reviewing contracts.

Does that mean humans are doomed? According to Deloitte’s study of employment, no, there’s no need to hit the panic button. Their research indicates that over 144 years in the UK, technology has actually created more jobs than it has eliminated, replacing dangerous, repetitive, and less interesting work with knowledge and people-oriented jobs.

Think about how technology has created new jobs like social media manager, YouTube content creator and data scientist, none of which existed 10 years ago.

Using AI will actually enable lawyers (and other professionals) to spend more time in areas that require the human touch, the people (‘soft’) skills, and highly specialised skills, such as advising and business strategy instead of contract review.

The site predicts that lawyers as a profession have a 3.5 per cent chance of being automated while paralegals have a 94 per cent chance of being automated as their work is more administrative and research-based. Generally, the careers least likely to be automated are those that are:

  • In the people-oriented, caring professions or those requiring the ‘human’ touch, like psychologists, nurses, teachers, educators, hairdressers
  • Highly specialised, e.g. surgeons, engineers, lawyers
  • Creative such as those in the fine arts, inventors, and business strategists

Given that we are in the Fourth Industrial Revolution, the need for science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) skills are obvious.

The British Council’s white paper released earlier this month entitled Future Skills Supporting the UAE’s Future Workforce revealed that three quarters of their survey respondents across every sector in the UAE believed that STEM qualifications were important for the future, for every job.

What is less obvious is that virtually all the UAE business executives surveyed emphasised the importance of the ability to work in teams. Next on the list came strong English language skills, creativity, and complex problem solving.

The UAE findings are in line with the World Economic Forum’s (WEF’s) Top 10 Skills for 2020:

1. Complex problem solving
2. Critical thinking
3. Creativity
4. People management
5. Coordinating with others
6. Emotional intelligence
7. Judgement and decision making
8. Service orientation
9. Negotiation
10. Cognitive flexibility

Worldwide, employers constantly lament the skills gap where fresh graduates are not only lacking in technical skills, but more importantly, the soft skills highlighted above since technical skills, e.g. programming, are easily outdated and even automated. In an era where change is the only constant, educators cannot teach students technical skills for roles that have not yet been created; it is precisely these soft skills that culminate in the ability to engage in life-long learning and agility that will protect our careers from automation.

Creativity is listed as the third most important skill and this is where the A in STEAM comes in – art to be included in STEM education.

Many schools and parents are eliminating arts education in the quest to focus on STEM while failing to realise the importance of language, music, and art in spurring innovation and creative thinking. Creative careers are also less likely to be automated.

Steve Jobs had often spoken about how a calligraphy course he took greatly influenced the fonts on the Mac, something he didn’t apply until a decade later. He also believed that science and art were not separate, citing how Leonardo da Vinci was both a great artist and scientist, and how he never forgot Polaroid inventor’s statement — “I want Polaroid to stand at the intersection of art and science”.

At the World Economic Forum in Davos this year, Jack Ma, founder of Alibaba, advocated that we teach soft skills because we can never compete with the technical skills of a machine, who are smarter, cheaper, and do not require health care benefits, overtime pay, or sick leave.

He emphasised that we must teach something unique, different from what machines do such as “values, believing, independent thinking, teamwork, care for others,… sports, music, painting, art”.

Yes, a tech billionaire stated that we should be teaching emotional intelligence (EI), art and sports, emphatically endorsing the arts in STEAM education.



In 2014, HH Sheikh Mohammed launched Dubai’s Smart City strategy, aiming to integrate technology into the infrastructure of the city, comprising the following six dimensions:

  • Smart mobility – which involves improving road infrastructure, traffic management, electric vehicle charging stations, and laws about sustainable transportation
  • Smart governance – through the digitalisation of government services and public education campaigns
  • Smart environment – focusing on renewable energy, sustainability, waste management, and protecting the environment
  • Smart People – through the promotion of happiness in its people (including tourists) and education
  • Smart ICT infrastructure – is the backbone of any smart city by providing information communications and technology (ICT) through wireless connectivity and real-time data analytics, monitoring, and intelligence.

Afzal Ibrahim, head of research and development at Emirates NBD’s Future Lab, believes that technology and smart cities present inter-disciplinary new career opportunities such as:

  • Experience designers who will combine design skills and technology, e.g. Virtual reality designer
  •  Smart city architects who incorporate civil engineering, Internet of Things, and policy in designing smart cities
  • Happiness Governors who will use both psychology and design principles to create happy spaces to nurture happy people
  • Infrastructure engineers trained in both mechanical engineering and computers
  • Digital bankers and crypto economists combining traditional fields of finance and economics with technology
  • Energy engineers using technology to design sustainable sources of energy
  • Policy makers with legal backgrounds and understanding of technology to draft smart city legislation and policies


The robots are definitely coming, but all is not doom and gloom. While AI will eliminate some positions, it will also create different new roles.

Here’s what you can do to improve your career prospects:

  • Find out the automation risk of your job by going to
  • If yours is one they term ‘doomed’ or to ‘start worrying’ about, begin upgrading your skill sets in other areas. What type of problems are you interested in solving? How can your interests and skills fit in a smart city? If you’re not sure, check out
  • Get used to the fact that one career per lifetime no longer exists. For those who may have their jobs taken by robots, new ones will emerge such as Space Tour Guide and 3D Fashion Designer. What other industries or roles could your transferable skills be used in?
  • Recognise that not all STEM jobs are equally attractive to the robots. For example, computer programmers have a 48 per cent of being automated while software developers have a 4 per cent chance.
  • Identify which of your skills is not as easily automated and invest in becoming more of an expert in those areas through upskilling and certification. For example, IBM Watson will be assisting with tax returns at H&R Block, but what other skills does an accountant have that is not as easily automated?
  • Volunteer for projects at work or in your community that will help develop alternate skill sets.
  • Mentor and be reverse-mentored by younger employees, friends, or your friends’ children to become more technologically fluent and to understand the mind-set of the next generation of consumers and leaders. After all, they might also be the next Zuckerberg looking for more seasoned employees.
  • Learn how you learn best and never stop learning! There are many free online resources out there and there is no excuse not to continually upgrade your skills. Learn about different disciplines, functions, and industries as interdisciplinary knowledge is key to innovation, which is essential to staying marketable in an ever-changing world.

Read: Five ways to innovate during UAE innovation month

  • Improve your soft skills as identified in the WEF list above. The main function of any role is to solve problems and to make your manager’s job easier. Don’t bring problems to your boss; propose solutions instead.
  • Most importantly, be nice, practice empathy, and be respectful to everyone. Not only because it is the right thing to do and will make you a better leader and team player, but it will also serve you well if that junior staff member everyone else overlooked becomes the founder of the next start-up acquired by Amazon.

A former lawyer and educator, Jeanette Teh is now a corporate trainer, innovation practitioner, leadership and career coach and founder of the self-improvement site Kaleidoscopic Sky


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