Will robots take your job?

ScreenHunter_11 Sep. 27 12.58

Cross-posted from The Conversation

Computers have been an important part of many industries for decades already and have replaced humans in many jobs. But a new wave of technological development means that even positions that we once saw as immune to computerisation are now under threat.

In 1930, as the Great Depression spread across the Atlantic, John Maynard Keynes famously predicted that the discovery of technological means would outrun the pace at which we can find new uses for labour, resulting in widespread technological unemployment. Keynes, however, was optimistic and predicted that this would only be a temporary phase. In the long-run, he argued, technological progress will solve mankind’s “economic problem”, that is our need to work, and release us from our traditional purpose of subsistence.

Commentators today are less optimistic. How Technology Wrecks the Middle Class, a recent New York Times column by David Autor and David Dorn, captures an observation made by several commentators: technology has turned on labour.

In the modern world of work, low income service jobs have expanded sharply at the expense of middle-income manufacturing and production jobs. There are many more security guards and pharmacy aides while the rate of growth has slowed in professions such as chemical plant operators and fabric patternmakers. Meanwhile, computers have increased the productivity of high income workers, such as professional managers, engineers and consultants. The result has been a polarised labour market with surging wage inequality. Research has shown that this polarisation between “lousy” and “lovely” jobs is happening in Britain as well as the US, implying that there has been a hollowing-out of the middle class.

The threat of computerisation has historically been largely confined to routine manufacturing tasks involving explicit rule-based activities such as part construction and assembly. But a look at 700 occupation types in the US suggests that 47% are at risk from a threat that once only loomed for a small proportion of workers.

The likelihood of a job being vulnerable to computerisation is based on the types of tasks workers perform and the engineering obstacles that currently prevent machines from taking over the role.

These technological breakthroughs are, in large part, due to efforts to turn non-routine tasks into well-defined problems. The automation of these occupations is made possible by big data and advanced sensors, giving robots enhanced senses and dexterity, allowing them to perform a broader scope of non-routine manual tasks. For the first time, jobs in transportation and logistics are at risk. Take the autonomous driverless cars being developed by Google. They are the perfect example of a new way in which a human worker, such as a long-haul truck driver, could be replaced by a machine in the modern age.

Desk dwellers are no longer immune either. Algorithms for big data are now rapidly entering domains reliant upon pattern recognition and can readily substitute for labour in a wide range of non-routine cognitive tasks. Those working in fields such as administration could once feel comfortable that a computer would never be able to do their job but that will no longer be the case for many.

More surprisingly, the bulk of service occupations, from fast food counter attendants to medical transcriptionists, where the most job growth has occurred over the past decades, are also to be found in the high risk category. This reflects technological development too. The market for personal and household service robots is already growing by about 20% annually. As the comparative advantage of human labour in tasks involving mobility and dexterity will diminish over time, the pace of labour substitution in service occupations is likely to increase even further.

This first wave of computerisation in the big data era marks a turning point. Nineteenth century manufacturing technologies largely substituted for skilled labour in jobs, such as weaving and the production of tools, by simplifying the tasks involved. Next, the computer revolution of the twentieth century caused a hollowing-out of middle-income jobs. The next generation of computers will mainly substitute low-income, low-skill workers over the next decades.

So, if a computer can drive as well as you, serve customers as well as you and track down information as well as you, just who is safe in their job these days?

Careers at low risk of computerisation are generally those that require knowledge of human heuristics and specialist occupations involving the development of novel ideas and artifacts. Most management, business and finance occupations, which are intensive in generalist tasks requiring social intelligence, are still largely confined to the low-risk category. The same is true of most occupations in education and healthcare, as well as arts and media jobs.

Engineering and science occupations are also less susceptible to the phenomenon, largely due to the high degree of creative intelligence they require. It is, however, possible that computers will fully substitute for workers in these occupations over the long-run.

This means that as technology races ahead, low-skill workers will need to train in tasks that are less susceptible to computerisation – that is, tasks requiring creative and social intelligence. If you want to stop a computer taking your job, you’ll have to hone your creative and social skills. Mercifully, it will be quite a while before the machines outpace us in that respect.

Article by Carl Frey, Michael Osborne, and Sean O’Heigeartaigh from the University of Oxford



  1. Yeah – can you imagine an electro-mechanic human-look-alike plumber showing up:

    and walking around your house, leaving mud and sh*t everywhere
    and doing a bodgy job so you have to call them again
    and charging you an arm and a leg for a $5 replacement part
    and not really fixing the real problem because they wouldn’t know their a$$ from their elbow, or don’t care to.
    and communicating with you using such a foul language which would make a taxi driver blush like a virgin.

    Aaah – I think plumbers will be safe too – as far as creative and social skills jobs go…

    • Machines at supermarket checkouts comes to mind. Starting to like them.

      When robots are smart enough to do most jobs I think they will band together secretly and start something like Terminator production.

      I want to get one to vacuum the house, they are almost good enough, but I still think they need to be able to detect puddles etc.

      • > I want to get one to vacuum the house, they are almost good enough, but I still think they need to be able to detect puddles etc.

        Whunh?!! Not sure if I should inquire as to the nature of these “puddles”! 😛

        Ino (I’m not here to “clean zee pool”!)

  2. There’s always hope UE. I hear NATO recently has a robot built to advise their general staff on battle tactics. One particular general was taking the robot’s advice during a simulation exercise and was losing heavily. Eventually he had no troops left and turned on the robot saying
    “Just what am I supposed to do now?”
    The robot said “Retreat”.
    The irritated general said “retreat WHAT?”
    The robot snapped to attention and said “Retreat SIR!”.

  3. Cheap robots are real and available TODAY.

    What is scarce however are the programming and optimization skills needed to transform a cheap generic robotics module into an application specific tool. Equally important is the willingness of the participants in incumbent industries to accept the ingress of robotics. Robots will replace low skilled jobs, so just get used to the idea!

    If there is only one lesson to be learned about technological change, it is that those who most rapidly embrace the change also accrue the greatest profits from the technology driven change.

  4. more than expensive robot/software it s cheap human labor overseas that is doing most of the damage.

    getting your accounting done while you sleep by 3 different teams in India/Manilla is pretty handy.You should also be able to access crack overseas teams of financial advisers that would produce topnoch marketing pdf (but they d need a financial service license here for the rent seeking part)

    we re not going to keep a middle class unless our dollar depreciate considerably.

    • I look forward to the Specufester 5000 – accessing cheap debt to buy established housing it will be great step forward in negative rates technology.

      It will be the next step in ruining our social structure with excellent efficiency and cold calculation – and it doesn’t get caught up validating its position on financial blogs.

      • ho yeah that would be great, with a big, almost automated datamining (or outsourced in india), that could mesh, sold prices/crime rates/states investments/infrastructures/new construction/vacancy/earnings/unemployment/immigration to forecast the capital gain and select the right opportunities automatically, deal with the expert system solicitor and the realestate agent software.

        Specufester 5000 would use its very large database ( also bought from other suppliers like Coles) to find and screen the most profitable tenants and determine automatically when to increase the and by how much to push the profitability to the theoretical limit.

        Specufester 5000, the road to riches.

  5. I want a robot that give me a decent haircut without all the spray tan, fake nails and tatts. Preferably at the bus-stop, in less than 2 minutes.

  6. There’s and interesting conundrum wrt robots.
    Would a robot (or any sort of artificial intelligence) be capable of performing one of today’s growing range of BS jobs?

    It seems to me that when the actual task has zero real value its inclusion in the product value chain is just a form of social engineering. Take for instance the “work safety” jobs associated with many industries. If human labor were completely eliminated from the “make” side of the business, would that automatically lead to a reduction in “work safety” personnel or conversely would we justify increasing the role for work safety professionals, reasoning that robots need more regulatory over-sight.

    Hmmm but surely regulatory supervision is a job perfectly suited to a robot!

  7. At some Australian airports the inward immigration staff have been replaced by automated scanning.

    Now if only we could do the same with all the self important customs officials.

    I look forward to the day when we can get on and off a plane without any human interaction with rude officialdom.

  8. Robots don’t necessarily need to completely replace humans in order to cause unemployment.
    If the robot can do part of the job, and hence greatly increase the productivity of the remaining humans, then you don’t need as many humans to do the job.
    For example, you might have a robot that isn’t smart enough to build a house, but is smart enough to be a builder’s labourer, thus trippling the productivity of a carpenter or bricklayer. Which means all the builder’s labourers are out of a job and now you need half as many carpenters.

    Or suppose you have really fancy architechural software with built in AI, and now you only need a quarter of the architects and draftsmen that you used to need to design a project. The result may be that all the previous job categories remain, but there just aren’t that many vacancies anymore. A robotic nurse’s assistant might mean you need half as many nurses. A robotic daycare assistant might mean you need half as many daycare workers. A robotic kitchenhand might mean you need half as many cooks. And so on.

  9. Unless one believes that there is some upper limit to “artificial” intelligence, the outlook is grim.

    The situation we are now facing is unprecedented: for the first time in human history, 99% of people could find themselves redundant. Not just out of work, but redundant. Not needed any more.

    Throughout history the Elites have always needed the masses, the plebs, the prols, the riff-raff, to do their work for them and to fight their battles for them so that they – the Elite – could enjoy life.

    The modern concept of “all men being born equal” is . . . well . . . modern. It arose out of very specific historical and economic conditions, conditions in which it was optimal to invest a large amount of resources in developing the skills of individuals. Those individuals thus became “valuable” and were treated well.

    That era has – arguably – already come to an end. The Great Conservative Revolution which began in Britain in May 1979 and quickly spread worlwide may come to be seen as the high water mark of such a world.

    Gone are the values which characterised much of the twentieth century. In their place we have a new religion of “Greed is Good”, Economic Efficiency, and International Competitiveness. Everyone must work harder, and longer, to “stay competitive”.

    And now, for the first time ever, the Elite may find itself no longer needing the bulk of humanity at all!

    Worse still, as long as these billions of riff-raff are allowed to go on living they will pose an ever-present threat to the Elite. As long as they are allowed to go on living there is the risk that they will rise up and overthrow the Rulers.

    You don’t need to be Einstein to see where this is going to end. And it won’t be pleasant.

    We know from history that Rulers have no qualms whatever about the mass murder of “common” people. Over millennia we have records of Rulers who killed people en masse or stood by callously and allowed them to die.

    Historically, however, Rulers were limited in their ability to wipe out swathes of humanity without repercussions. Hitherto, they needed all those trolls to do the work and fight the wars. Rulers who killed off too many minions were liable to be overthrown.

    Now, for the first time, that constraint may be about to be lifted.

    The moment they no longer need the riff-raff, the politicians and their influential buddies will have no qualms at all about “wasting” them.

    How will this happen?

    It probably won’t happen overtly with Rulers killing “their” own people. That would be likely to precipitate the very uprising the Rulers seek to avoid.

    Historically, such mass murder usually takes place in the context of wars between different Rulers. The masses will be sacrificed in the name of a “just war” against some other regime.

    My guess is that sooner or later the baboons who rule in Washington and the baboons who rule in Beijing will be unable to resist having a showdown to prove which monkey has the biggest dong. It’s what male homo sapiens do. They are programmed by evolution. It is inevitable.

    And in that conflagration, the big baboons will sit in their bomb shelters while the mass of people outside are killed by neutron bombs (which will kill the people but not the machines) . . . all in the name of a “just war”.

    When it’s all over, the Rulers will emerge, make up with one another, and enjoy an empty planet with all their needs provided by robots.

    The Ruthless Will Inherit the Earth.

    • The ruthless have already inherited the earth, but as a former investment banker you would know that. I have a global nuclear religious war instigated by the death cult of Islamic jihadists pencilled in for sometime bewteen 2050-2095, but you might also be right. There’s no reason they couldn’t run concurrently.

    • I think DNA may do the job first. Every organism stems from the same thing and its only core nature is to find a way to survive.

      If you live in a perfect bubble eventually it gets popped.

    • Just one problem with this SM. The assets of the 1%, with the exception of perhaps energy, derive their value from the fact that the other 99% want them and trade their “productivity” for said assets.

      Just like the gods of olympus that needed the prayers of the mortals, the demand of the rest make the 1% rich. Take that away and suddenly it’s a level playing field of sorts.

      Why do you think everyone is fighting so hard to stop the deflation?

  10. If the robots are made in Japan/China or wherever, will they need 457 visas to come in?

    Hmmm, I wonder what the unions’ll make of that!

  11. “The next generation of computers will mainly substitute low-income, low-skill workers over the next decades.”

    Think again. There’s little point in investing big money to replace the cleaner: those robots already exist, they’re called underpaid migrants. You know, as in student visas, or 457 visas.

    Big payroll cuts are made of this:

    “Can computers save health care? IU research shows lower costs, better outcomes
    “Cost per unit of outcome was $189, versus $497 for treatment as usual”


  12. To my mind, a bigger threat to society than robots, or war, will be pestilence. We humans are very, very ill-prepared for serious infectious disease, our antibiotics are failing and the barriers to the spread of disease are very porous. A major epidemic with millions of deaths among first world populations could have interesting effects on society.

  13. Is this only really a concern because most people have taken on the values of a robot as they live the lives that suits the global production and capital machine?

    The fear of having your identity stolen by a robot only applies if you have an identity a robot can steal.

  14. Good comment from Stephen Morris.

    The last couple of centuries have been quite extraordinary. From the time of the Industrial Revolution to the present, we have been in a situation where the skills of the middle classes have been in great demand. Have a look at some documentaries from the mid 20th century and see the amazing things that were achieved in machines, aircraft, weapons, etc etc. The middle classes were valued for their life long skills – and rewarded. It made sense to house, feed, educate and medicate them as their skills were often peaking at middle age.

    That is no longer true. The advances in robotics, computing and technology has now shifted the power to the techno elite – not the middle classes. The middle classes are currently being used in an experimental trial of exponential consumer growth, however this will probably fail. The future of the middle classes and lower does not look promising.

    What does make sense in a world where human labour is not essential, is to maintain a population level that does not cause resource problems, yet maximises diversity. How the future configures itself will be very interesting to see.

    About 200 years ago we opened a pandoras box. The crazy thing is that most of our economic theory has been developed in this most extraordinary atypical situation. We have a whole planet full of economists who are trained in the behaviour of an economic singularity.

    On a related theme, inquiring minds should be ruminating on the implications of virtual worlds in the near future. The probability of a shift in this direction has just increased dramatically. Google “3-sweep” – a chinese academic at a US university has demonstrated an algorithm that can extract a 3D model easily from a a 2D image. The cost of automating the transfer of images into 3D worlds just dropped by perhaps 2 orders of magnitude. How can the current political/economic system survive a massive shift like this? The future will not look anything like the present.

    • Well said Darkmatter.

      In a perverse way I kinda expect NBN to become this virtual world which provides an unlimited number of virtual jobs. I mean how difficult would it be to convince the average punter that their worthless computer keyboard clicking actually had a purpose. From my observations we are already well on our way to achieving this objective we just need to replace middle level managers with some automated AI email answering system and the loop is completed.

      The beauty of the system is that only those that are technically capable of seeing through the subterfuge are welcomed to the first level technical elite, which is naturally exactly the same as the lowest level but with a different AI interface and rewarding different objectives.

      Bottom line is that everyone is entertained and is supplied with sufficient porn to meet their wants.

    • The crazy thing is that most of our economic theory has been developed in this most extraordinary atypical situation.

      Very important point that is easily lost especially by those who subscribe to the extremes.

  15. So when the robots take over and the Middle class is out of jobs , who do you think will be buying all the stuff that robots make?.

    Without jobs how do you think the middle class will afford all those products built with supreme productivity?

    The coming of the robot age will only herald a golden age of abundance when we start mining asteroids, colonising other planets for all of which bull shit jobs.

    It is the transition that will be painful. I say bring it on

  16. The mantra seems to be “productivity gains” so here it is….

    Robots can work 24/7, don’t take breaks, don’t have bad backs/attitudes and don’t require interior lighting or a pay check.

    The only safe jobs in the future are those involved in building new businesses around automation or those involved with “the engineering obstacles that currently prevent machines from taking over new roles”