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Lawyers, doctors and public servants in firing line from rise of the machines

Machines will end about 40 per cent of today's Australian jobs within two decades and they're coming for middle class occupations, one of the nation's automatisation experts has warned.

University of Sydney professor of data science and machine learning Hugh Durrant-Whyte said Canberra's public servants would be among those in the firing line.

Professor Hugh Durrant-Whyte has said 40 per cent of today's jobs will be gone in 10-20 years.
Professor Hugh Durrant-Whyte has said 40 per cent of today's jobs will be gone in 10-20 years.  Photo: Damian Bennett

"All jobs that are primarily analysis are capable of automation," he said.  "Those middle jobs will go, the question is whether these people move up to better policy making, or simply out." 

Australia was one of the world's largest users of robotics in the mining, transport and agriculture sectors, but the "hollowing out" of middle-tier white collar roles was just beginning, he said.

Former NICTA chief executive Professor Hugh Durrant-Whyte will speak in Canberra on February 9.
Former NICTA chief executive Professor Hugh Durrant-Whyte will speak in Canberra on February 9.  Photo: Andrew Meares

"The curious thing about automatisation and particularly computerisation is that the jobs that are going are not the ones at the low end of the market, it's the people in the middle like journalists, doctors, lawyers, assistants, bank tellers," he said.

Professor Durrant-Whyte, who will speak in Canberra next month, said machine learning meant computers could now do everything from write reports, sell insurance and constantly monitor and advise on an individual's health.

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The professor, 54, was a co-author of the Australia's Future Workforce? report, published by think tank CEDA last year, which said almost 5 million jobs – 40 per cent of the workforce – faced a high probability of being replaced by technology within 20 years, and another 18 per cent had a medium probability of their roles being eliminated.

The challenge was how to prepare people for the top-tier jobs that would remain and be created, not those at the bottom.

A former chief executive of NICTA, the nation's peak information and communications technology research body, Professor Durrant-Whyte backed the federal government's pushing of coding in Australian schools, and said Canberra was as well-placed as any city to adapt to the coming workforce revolution.

"The most important thing you've got is the ANU, you have the capacity not just to think through but act through these sorts of things through the enormous human capacity [there]," he said.

But the Brit, who spent a decade at Oxford before his move to Sydney, said signing up for science, technology, engineering or mathematics degrees was not an answer in itself, with many of those graduates finding it hard to land a related job.

"I think it's more the issue that we need to ensure those people have the transferable skills to apply that STEM knowledge in other wealth creation activities," he said.

Professor Durrant-Whyte will give the Academy of Science public lecture at the Shine Dome on February 9. Bookings are available online