Could a Robot Do Your Job?

Source: Thinkstock

Source: Thinkstock

As Americans, our careers are a huge part of our lives; for many of us, they are the axis around which much of our day-to-day struggles and triumphs revolve. From the time we are young, perhaps even while we are still in elementary school, we are asked “what would you like to be when you grow up?” We ponder this question for decades as we move through school and, later as adults, the first question we’re often asked at social events is “what do you do for work?” Our work is a huge part of our identity, and we all want to find a job which fulfills us and which allows us to be free from fear of debt, or poverty. It’s a lofty dream.

What if I told you that your career may be in jeopardy? Not from another economic downturn, but from automation. Yes, I’m talking about robots. Don’t believe me? According to a recent Oxford University study, about 47 percent of U.S. jobs currently fall into the “high risk” category for being automated.

If it seems like science fiction that’s because up until a few years ago, it probably was. But things have changed. According to a Pew survey of 1,986 technological experts, most anticipate that robotics and artificial intelligence will permeate wide segments of daily life by 2025. Further, today’s robots are smart; really smart. Indeed, while the robots we’re used to are the ones that build your car or explore Mars under the guidance of a technician millions of miles away might be highly specific and not very intelligent outside of the narrow context in which they operate, things are changing. The robots that are being built now are capable of learning to do what you do, and do it better than you ever thought possible.

As a result, many of the “safe haven” industries; that is, low-wage industries where workers feel they are safe from the threat of exportation or automation (non-manufacturing industries, in other words) aren’t as safe as many once thought they were.

Even more surprising is the fact that many higher-paying jobs aren’t nearly as secure as people like to imagine. So, if you’re thinking that you’re job is far too skilled to be overtaken by a robot, you might want to think again.

What are the jobs that are currently facing the highest risk of automation? Many of them are, unsurprisingly, low-paying. Frey and Osbourne, whose Oxford University study portends an exceedingly gloomy scenario, finds that “most workers in transportation and logistics occupations, together with the bulk of office and administrative support workers, and labour in production occupations, are at risk.”

But while those jobs might not come as much of a surprise, given the recent advent of the self-driving car, there are a surprising number of other high-risk occupations which, up until recently, no one would have thought of as capable of being computerized. Frey and Osbourne note, “we find that a substantial share of employment in service occupations, where most U.S. job growth has occurred over the past decades, are highly susceptible to computerization.”

While it’s true that many of the jobs at the highest risk of automation are fairly unskilled and low-paying, there are also a few careers robots are poised to take over that may surprise you. Real estate brokers and dental technicians are one such example. And while it’s true they don’t fall in the “high-risk” category, they are surprisingly riskier than anyone might have guessed, according to Frey and Osbourne’s analysis.

So, you might be thinking, what sort of job can I land if I want to be sure I won’t be replaced with a robot overlord? In general, the more highly skilled your job is, the less likely it is that it can be automated. Among the most prominent jobs that are at low risk of being automated are teachers, registered nurses, physicians, and lawyers.

There are also several key traits associated with the jobs least likely to eventually become automated. For one, higher levels of education often help, though they are not necessarily a guarantee. Further, critical thinking, analytical reasoning and creative skills are all hard to replace. Artists of the world, rejoice.

MIT and Harvard economists Frank Levy and Richard Murnane, authors of another study on the influence of automation on our world, point out that eventually computers will perform nearly all of the tasks “for which logical rules or a statistical model lay out a path to a solution,” which leaves humans with a much smaller set of skills which they can use to contribute to society and the economy. Those skills, Levy and Murnane argue are primarily that of “flexibility – the ability to process and integrate many kinds of information to perform a complex task, [such as] solving problems for which standard operating procedures do not currently exist, and working with new information – acquiring it, making sense of it, communicating it to others.”

But the range of jobs which require the particular set of skills that Levy and Murnane have suggested is narrow, meaning that robots could effectively give rise to unprecedented levels of income inequality. Another contributor to the discussion, economist Paul Krugman, is especially pessimistic, noting that beyond job loss, robots will help to concentrate earnings in the hands of those who already control most of the assets. In other words, the owners of the machines that stole your job would be the ones primarily benefitting from their existence.

Not all experts, however, believe that the increasing use of general purpose robots is a bad thing. MIT professor David Autor, for instance, believes that humans and robots can work together in a complimentary way, noting that robots are less likely to replace whole jobs as they are to replace tasks within a given job.

Still other experts argue that there is no way to know how new-age robots will affect our world, let alone our jobs. For instance, in that same Pew survey of nearly 2,000 technological experts, only about half believed that technology would destroy more jobs than it creates.

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