The immediate challenge is not killer robots, its job replacement. If individuals are automated out of jobs, the future for society is bleak.

Computers can already take orders, fold clothes and even drive cars, but where to from here?

The robots are coming. Although often spoken of in future tense, the truth is machine learning is well and truly here. Without realising, consumers interact with ‘smart’ technology at almost every touch point; from robotic vacuums to facial recognition technology, artificial intelligence (AI) is helping to complete tasks faster, cheaper and – sometimes - more effectively than ever before.

In an economy that’s driven by speed and efficiency, it should come as no surprise that a computer’s ability to communicate at a trillion bits per second is favoured above the human capability of about 10 bits.

McKinsey recently reported that 40 per cent of work tasks can be automated using existing technology, prompting everyone from factory workers to lawyers and accountants to consider the threat of being replaced by robots as not just inevitable, but imminent.

For technologists, we are witnessing first-hand how this emerging field is transforming the companies we work for.

In my work at Isentia, we use machine learning to process seven million news items each day. Not long ago this was a task relegated performed solely by humans with the mind-numbing task of flipping through newspapers in search of stories that might relate to a client.

We have a duty to empower those around us to learn everything they can about what their job may evolve into in order to become the very best man-machine partner possible.

Today, machines trawl video, audio and digital content across over 5,500 new sites at a rate of 234 stories per second and present meaningful summaries to clients in real-time.

Whether a story breaks on Twitter and then spills across news platforms and onto television and radio, machine learning can track and analyse how a story evolves with 99 per cent accuracy.

While AI is revolutionising the way that we work, the impact is far greater for those in the tech industry. In our mission to develop software that can learn complex problems without needing to be taught how, the success of the AI industry ultimately comes down to technology professionals: our ability to automate, and the pace at which we expand the field of machine learning.

With an annual growth rate of 19.7 per cent percent (predicted to be worth $15.3 billion by 2019), it’s safe to say our foot is well and truly on the pedal. While this relies greatly on our technical capabilities, it is something that challenges many of us ethically: what set of values should AI be aligned with?

Two of the greatest technologists of our times, Elon Musk and Stephen Hawking, have spoken about both the potential benefit and the harm that an AI arms race could deliver. An eradication of disease is not unfathomable, but nor is a threat to humanity. They hold grave concerns as to whether or not robots can be controlled against misuse or malfunction.

While thought provoking, the immediate challenge is not killer robots, it’s job replacement. Employment may not seem like an ethical problem, but if individuals are automated out of jobs, the future for society is bleak. While the phrase ‘Thank God it’s Friday’ has forged its way into the 9-to-5 vernacular, for most people, jobs create a huge sense of personal and professional satisfaction… not to mention a means to pay bills.

An apocalypse might be somewhat melodramatic, however I do agree that it is important to consider just how closely we should merge biological and digital intelligence.

Computers can already take orders, fold clothes and even drive cars, but where to from here? It’s both exciting and terrifying. The last time we experienced a revolution like this was in the early 1900s when cars, telephones and the airplane all emerged at once.

Contrary to the hype, there lies an enormous opportunity for humans to work with artificial intelligence, not be replaced by it.

Make no mistake: at some level every job can be carried out by a robot. But there are certain jobs, particularly in technology, that require decision making, planning or coding software.

While computers do a brilliant job of executing well-defined activities - such as telling us the fastest route to get from home to work - it is safe to say that humans are an essential component of goal setting, interpreting results, humour, sarcasm and implementing common sense checks.

The most difficult jobs to automate are those that involve managing and developing people. While in this industry most of our jobs are safe (for now), we should heed the advice of Musk and Hawkings and protect those outside our field by proceeding with caution. How then to facilitate human and robots working together harmoniously without the workforce morphing into cyborgs? The secret is to not sail out farther we can row back.

As technologists, we also have a duty to empower those around us to learn everything they can about what their job may evolve into in order to become the very best man-machine partner possible. It's the best, and most ethical, way to prepare for the inevitable advent of AI.

First publish in CIO New Zealand

Andrea Walsh, CIO