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    Monday
    Sep232013

    ODDS: Are you going to be replaced by a robot?

    Note: I'm taking one more run down the robot trail today, then I will probably let it go for a while, at least until the robot overlords tell me I need to resurrect the topic again.

    Lots of folks, including me, have presented example after example, chart after chart, and anecdote after anecdote all pointing towards a future where more and more jobs that are currently held by people will become automated, roboticized, or rendered unnecessary. But for all the individual examples of this phenomenon, and all the hand-wringing around the issue, I had not ever seen a 'macro' assessment of the topic, i.e., a look at attempting to measure just how many and whay type of jobs are more or less likely vulnerable or susceptible to robot-like automation.

    Well a newly released study from researchers at Oxford titled 'The Future of Employment: How Susceptible Are Jobs To Computerisation?', attempts to do just that - to place a number, (or a target if you are more cynical), on the number and types of jobs that are more or less likely to be automated away in the coming years. 

    The study, a collaboration between Dr Carl Benedikt Frey (Oxford Martin School) and Dr Michael A. Osborne (University of Oxford), found that jobs in transportation, logistics, as well as office and administrative support, are at “high risk” of automation. More surprisingly, occupations within and across the service industry are also highly susceptible to automation, despite recent job growth in this sector.

    The entire paper can be found here (PDF), and since it is really long, your humble blogger took the liberty of spending Sunday morning reading it for you and I will share with you a couple of choice excerpts below:

    Although the extent of these developments remains to be seen, estimates by MGI (2013) suggests that sophisticated algorithms could substitute for approximately 140 million full-time knowledge workers worldwide. Hence, while technological progress throughout economic history has largely been confined to the mechanisation of manual tasks, requiring physical labour, technological progress in the twenty-first century can be expected to contribute to a wide range of cognitive tasks, which, until now, have largely remained a human domain. Of course, many occupations being affected by these developments are still far from fully computerisable, meaning that the computerisation of some tasks will simply free-up time for human labour to perform other tasks.etheless, the trend is clear: computers increasingly challenge human labour in a wide range of cognitive tasks (Brynjolfsson and McAfee, 2011).

    Did you catch that? 140 million knowledge workers, a group that I would expect includes just about everyone reading this post, could be susceptible and threatened by sophisticated algorithms.

    And let's not forget about the service and 'lower skilled' occupations as well. Here is more on that front from the paper:

    Expanding technological capabilities and declining costs will make entirely new uses for robots possible. Robots will likely continue to take on an increasing set of manual tasks in manufacturing, packing, construction, maintenance, and agriculture. In addition, robots are already performing many simple service tasks such as vacuuming, mopping, lawn mowing, and gutter cleaning – the market for personal and household service robots is growing by about 20 percent annually (MGI, 2013). Meanwhile, commercial service robots are now able to perform more complex tasks in food preparation, health care, commercial cleaning, and elderly care (Robotics-VO, 2013). As robot costs decline and technological capabilities expand, robots can thus be expected to gradually substitute for labour in a wide range of low-wage service occupations, where most US job growth has occurred over the past decades (Autor and Dorn, 2013). This means that many low-wage manual jobs that have been previously protected from computerisation could diminish over time.

    Look, it may not be breakthrough or even interesting news at this point that automation continues to advance, and both individual jobs and entire job categories are likely to be eventually transformed or even completely replaced by technology - be it robots or software or a combination of both.

    But I still think the size of this transformation, and its impact are still underestimated. If the Oxford researchers are only half right, and instead of their conclusion that 47% of jobs in the USA are likely to be hihgly susceptible to automation in the next 20 years or so, and it works out to be closer to a quarter of all jobs that meet that same fate, it still has deep and profound implications for the economy, for education, and for society.

    If you are interested at all in this topic, then I do suggest marking out some time to read the entire paper, it is one of the most fully developed takes on the subject that I have seen.

    And I promise to lay off the 'robot' posts for a while!

    Have a great week everyone!

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