Automation and the future of work. Or, is my job safe from robots?

Will a robot take your job?

What would the world be like if you woke up one morning and did not have to go to work? The notion of living free from the fetters of labour is a very inviting fantasy. However, it may not be as far off as you think, nor as inviting.

Over the next two decades, automation promises to reshape notions of work, production and value creation on a global scale. While some might hail this progress as the route to an egalitarian, labour free society, others are more cautious of the potential discord wrought when  human labour is rendered obsolete. A recent study by the Mckinsey Global Institute forecasts that up to 800 million workers worldwide could lose their jobs to automation by 2030.

Whichever way you look at it, the reality is that, over the next two decades, the diminishing costs of computing and the rapid evolution of Artificial Intelligence (AI), machine learning and robotics will continue to disrupt the labour market.

The key question you need to then ask yourself: Is my job safe from robots?

Automation and unemployment

Automation refers to the “the creation of technology and its application in order to control and monitor the production and delivery of various goods and services”. Importantly, this www.techopedia.com’s definition highlights the following fact about automation: “It performs tasks that were previously performed by humans.”

The introduction of labour-saving technologies into processes is intricately encoded into human history, and therefore nothing new. Neither is the fear associated with the threat that automation poses to employment. A great example relates to the invention of a stocking frame knitting machine by William Lee in 1589. Although the technology promised to relieve England’s textile workers of the necessity to hand knit clothing, it was also considered a major threat to specialised crafts safeguarded by the English guild system. In the early 19th century, the Luddite protest movement was again a prominent backlash by skilled handloom weavers against the mechanisation of the British textile industry that emerged as part of the Second Industrial Revolution.

The automation of job tasks has created technological displacement since before the Second Industrial Revolution and up until the present. So what makes the contemporary situation unique? The answer is that information technology, robotics, and AI changed the game via their ability to automate more intricate, cognitive tasks previously under the sole domain of humans.

This exponential growth in the power of technology is an important factor in what is driving automation now, and what will continue to drive the potential to automate more jobs in the future.

What jobs can be automated?

Authors Autor, Levy and Murnane distinguish job tasks in a two by two matrix of routine and non-routine tasks on one axis, and cognitive versus manual tasks on the other.

Routine tasks: follow explicit rules and follow consistent movements that are continuously repeated for a desired result.

Non-routine tasks: do not follow a determined plan or follow specified rules; they require flexibility and the application of multiple skills in different combinations.

Manual tasks: require bodily action to perform by manipulation of physical objects, commonly associated with factory work or construction.

Cognitive tasks: require active thinking and usually involve symbolic manipulation of words, numbers, or abstract ideas.

Manual tasks can be either routine or non-routine, such as a routine factory job versus a non-routine caregiver job. The same distinction applies to cognitive tasks, such as a routine clerical or administrative job versus the non-routine job of a manager or lawyer.  Some jobs combine different categories of tasks in the performance of a given job, therefore automation of certain tasks in a job might not automate the entire occupation away. Nonetheless, automation of tasks can transform how a job is done, or possibly eliminate the job category entirely, given the right conditions.

While technological progress throughout economic history has largely been confined to the mechanisation of manual tasks, computer and information technologies have the capacity to automate both manual and cognitive tasks.

Robots and sensors produce vast quantities of commodities with very little direct human assistance. Artificial intelligences drive cars, write sports articles and financial reports, trade stocks on Wall Street, and choose the advertisements customers see online. Big data and machine learning allow computers to recognise large-scale patterns in data that humans cannot process, and develop complicated algorithms that can be used to automate even more tasks.

Will a robot take my job?

In 2013 Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael A. Osborne published a report titled “The Future of Employment: How susceptible are jobs to computerisation?”. The authors estimated the probability of computerisation for 702 detailed occupations, using a Gaussian process classifier. According to their estimates, about 47 percent of total US employment is at risk.

In the light of their findings, the authors of www.willrobotstakemyjob.com extracted the jobs and the probability of automation from the report and made an easy-to-use search engine which establishes a threat estimate for your job. Jobs that are most at risk are repetitive and mechanical. Work that humans do better than machines include jobs that require:

Perception and Manipulation – Finger or manual dexterity, or the necessity to work in cramped spaces/awkward positions

Creative Intelligence – Originality and fine arts

Social Intelligence – Social perceptiveness, negotiation, persuasion, and caring for others

Therefore, professions such as public relations specialist (high social intelligence), fashion designer (high creativity), and surgeon (requires advanced perception and manipulation skills) are all unlikely to be automated by a machine intelligence in the near future because those jobs require performance of complex non-routine tasks. According to www.willrobotstakemyjob.com,

Top-paid jobs with the lowest automation risk include:

  • Audiobiologists
  • Occupational therapists
  • Sales engineers
  • Psychologists
  • Dentists

Top-paid jobs with the highest automation risks include:

  • Compensation and benefits managers
  • Nuclear power reactor operators
  • Nuclear technicians
  • Administrative service managers
  • Atmospheric and space scientists 

It’s not all doom and gloom

As noted by Andrew Arnold in his “Why Robots Will Not Take Over Human Jobs”, it’s not all doom and gloom. Humans and technology must work together. “The idea that humans can leverage technology to provide a better world for all of us is not silly, however. It’s fascinating.”

Because of the competitive nature of the global market economy, automation is an imperative for businesses’ evolution in the current late capitalist society. Robots and AI will certainly replace certain jobs and lead to greater productivity. However, as Arnold maintains:

Robots and AI have been created by humans – they are tools that we can use when we give the right instructions […] The idea that technology will replace the need for creative thinking, problem-solving, leadership, teamwork and initiative is rather silly right now.

For the individual, the challenge will be to remain agile, educated, dynamic and fluid in a changing labour environment. As new technologies threaten existing jobs, they also lead to the emergence of novel, yet to be thought out professions. The things that make you human, such as creative intelligence, social intelligence and above all empathy will be amongst the tools you need to sharpen to stay relevant in the coming age of robots.

Comments are closed.