The robots are coming, the robots are coming!
Regular reports warn us that an automation apocalypse is nigh. In January, a McKinsey & Company study found that about 30% of tasks in 60% of occupations could be computerized and last year, the Bank of England’s chief economist said that 80m US and 15m UK jobs might be taken over by robots.
Of course, not all jobs are created equally. In 2013, a highly cited study by Oxford University academics called The Future of Employment examined 702 common occupations and found that some jobs – telemarketers, tax preparers and sports referees – are at more risk than others including recreational psychologists, dentists and physicians.
The least safe jobs
While there have been optimistic predictions that new technology would increase prosperity and lower drudgery, very few of us are working the 15-hour work week that, in 1930, the economist John Maynard Keynes predicted would be the norm for his grandkids. If anything, we’re working 15-hour days.
Today’s technological revolution is an entirely different beast from the industrial revolution. The pace of change is exponentially faster and far wider in scope. As Stanford University academic Jerry Kaplan writes in Humans Need Not Apply: today, automation is “blind to the color of your collar.” It doesn’t matter whether you’re a factory worker, a financial advisor or a professional flute-player: automation is coming for you.
Before we get too deep into doom and gloom, it’s worth stressing that automation isn’t synonymous with job losses. Speaking to me over the phone, Frey was quick to point out that his work doesn’t make any explicit predictions such as “47% of US jobs will disappear”. It simply says that these jobs are exposed to automation.
In other words, the jobs themselves won’t entirely vanish; rather, they will be redefined. Of course, as Frey concedes, “from the perspective of the worker there is not much of a difference” between work disappearing and being radically redefined. It’s likely they’ll lack the new skillsets required for the role and be out of a job anyway.
H&R Block, one of America’s largest tax preparation providers, is now using Watson, IBM’s AI platform
Professor Richard Susskind, author of The Future of the Professions and Tomorrow’s Lawyers, echoes this distinction. “What you’re going to see for a lot of jobs is a churn of different tasks,” he explains. “So a lawyer today doesn’t develop systems that offer advice, but the lawyer of 2025 will. They’ll still be called lawyers but they’ll be doing different things.”
Martin Ford, futurist and author of Rise of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of a Jobless Future, explains the jobs that are most at risk are those which “are on some level routine, repetitive and predictable”.
Telemarketing, for example, which is highly routine, has a 99% probability of automation according to The Future of Employment report; you may have already noticed an increase in irritating robocalls. Tax preparation, which involves systematically processing large amounts of predictable data, also faces a 99% chance of being automated. Indeed, technology has already started doing our taxes: H&R Block, one of America’s largest tax preparation providers, is now using Watson, IBM’s artificial intelligence platform.
The safest jobs
Robots will also take over the more repetitive tasks in professions such as law, with paralegals and legal assistants facing a 94% probability of having their jobs computerized. According to a recent report by Deloitte, more than 100,000 jobs in the legal sector have a high chance of being automated in the next 20 years.
The first is jobs that involve “genuine creativity, such as being an artist, being a scientist, developing a new business strategy”. Ford notes: “For now, humans are still best at creativity but there’s a caveat there. I can’t guarantee you that in 20 years a computer won’t be the most creative entity on the planet. There are already computers that can paint original works of art. So, in 20 years who knows how far it’s going to go?”
What jobs will still be around in 20 years? Read this to prepare your future