Travel agents learn about risks and opportunities with "zombie jobs"

Dr Paul Redmond, author of Attack of the Zombie Jobs, addressed the ABTA Travel Convention on the "new dawn of zombie jobs" - that is, jobs that are at risk of becoming obsolete because of technological advances, particularly artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics.

He opened with the story of how Mary Shelley came to write Frankenstein in 1818 and its parallels to modern robotic technology. While there is still distrust of robotics and automation, Dr Redmond said that in regard to accidents with planes, trains and cars, human error is overwhelmingly a bigger cause than technology failures.

A wide range of industries are turning to AI, automation and robotics to replace jobs - and this includes professional jobs as well as blue-collar jobs, according to Dr Redmond. He said the Royal Air Force is training the last of its fighter pilots, pharmacists are being replaced by robotic dispensers, and hospitals are using robotics to triage patients and reduce A&E waiting times.

"The travel industry is at the forefront of zombification," Dr Redmond said, giving the example of Harrison, the robot at Munich airport which has started making recommendations to customers based on "preferences people didn't know they had".

Since 2007, change has been rapid, Dr Redmond told the conference, as that was the year when the iPhone, Facebook, Twitter, Amazon Kindle, Airbnb, IBM Watson, PlayStation 3 and Google all made a serious impact on the world in multiple areas.

He said that some of the ways in which technology was impacting on the travel industry included robot concierges, the ability to "visit" places via virtual reality, and augmented reality technologies used to enhance real-life experiences. "This will become the new normal for an entire generation," he said.

Dr Redmond outlined three challenges that are presented by technology, the first one being technology "making reality less interesting than the story told about it later" - or, in other words, the rise of social media and "people looking at the world through a screen". He said that a study found that 40% of millennials choose travel destinations based on how "Instagrammable" they are - a trend that could be turned into opportunities for travel agents looking to increase bookings in the younger demographics.

The second challenge he outlined was "technology hollowing out millions of professional jobs", with a 2015 McKinsey report finding that 45% of the work humans are currently paid to do could become automated.

The final challenge is that for many organisations today, "success is no longer dependent on big workforces" - for example, Instagram has 30,000,000 users but only 13 employees.

"To be zombie-proof, there are three key questions you need to ask yourself," Dr Redmond said in conclusion. They are: does your job require interacting with people and using social intelligence; does your job involve creativity or finding clever solutions; and does your job require working in an unpredictable environment. He said that these three questions are applicable to the travel industry, and through innovation, the ability to simplify, creativity and an enterprising attitude, "the opportunities are there [provided people can] forget the lessons of the past."

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