The Robots are Coming! The Future of Employment – Part 1

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A spectre is looming over the future of employment in the world – the spectre of automation. In a much-cited study by the scholars at Oxford University, aptly titled The Future of Employment, predicted that in the next 20 years around 47% of jobs could be automated, i.e. smart machines would replace humans (2013). Another recent study by McKinsey and Company found that about 30% of tasks in nearly one-third of occupations could get computerised. In fact, famous entrepreneurs like Elon Musk and Bill Gates, while worrying about the future, talked about how it could lead to mass unemployment. Bill Gates went as far as to suggest that a time may come when we’ll have to tax the robots!


Is the Hype Real?


So, is the anxiety real? Or is it just yet another exaggerated prediction about the future of jobs? In the past 60 years, according to one study, only one of the 270 jobs got eliminated due to automation: of the elevator operator. This overreaction towards the advent of new technology is called the ‘Luddite Fallacy’ where actually technology ends up creating new types of jobs.

Some of the major economists have argued that this sort of anxiety has always cropped up whenever there’s been any technological advancement but they all amounted to nothing. Heidi Shierholz, a senior economist at the Economic Policy Institute, while talking on the issue in a video, argues that automation does indeed displace workers but it doesn’t affect the total number of jobs in the economy because of the new opportunities that arise because of changes in technology.

But some argue that with the rise of intricate A.I. and leaps in machine learning, we may be witnessing a different beast altogether. Let me give you an example of Watson, which is a highly sophisticated computer system that is capable of answering questions in natural human language.

If you are thinking what’s that got to do with the future of employment, then think again as IBM’s machine is already creating a revolution in the field of HR as various employers have started using the power of Watson in future recruitments. In fact, in 2011, Watson managed to defeat two humans in the highly famous quiz game Jeopardy which announced to the world the future of machines is already here.

What is also different this time around is the rate of change in technological advancements which is staggering. Just to give a picture of what I am talking about, in 2004 two different studies assessed on the level of computing power, and the first one assessed the teaching computer to drive on the road is something that is unforeseeable (The Divison of Labour, Frank Levy and Richard Murnane, 2004), while the other study argued that human level speech recognition for computers will remain an elusive goal for the next few decades (Reddy, 2004). And then you think of Siri (introduced in 2011) or Google Assistant (2016) or Cortana (2016) or the self-driving cars we have been hearing about for some years now, which makes you realise how we may be just underestimating the speed of these changes. What may seem unimaginable today may be a reality in 5 or even 10 years.


So What Types of Jobs are at Risk?


According to Martin Ford, a futurist argues that due to further advancement in automation, certain types of jobs are at a higher risk, especially jobs which are repetitive and predictable in nature (2015). So, job profiles which follow a set pattern are most likely to be replaced by the machines in the coming decades. Going back to the Oxford study, for example, it found that jobs like telemarketing have a 99% chance of being automated. In the west, the trend has already stared where people are receiving calls from robots! Other jobs that the study predicts that are likely to get automated are the job of a loan officer (98%), a machine going through numbers and data to finalise if a person eligible or not for a loan, or a bank cashier (97%).

Even the legal industry is not immune to automation as the study predicts that the routine tasks of assistants to lawyers have a 94% chance of getting automated. According to a recent report by Deloitte around 100, 000 jobs in the legal sector have a high possibility of being automated in the next two decades. The Oxford study even puts the likelihood that the job of a taxi driver being replaced by a robot at a staggering 89%! And with the industry pushing towards advancements in machine learning and a smarter A.I., the feasibility of technological singularity doesn’t seem to be fiction anymore.

Okay, I know you must be thinking of numerous things like it’s not happening now and you should not be worrying about the robots taking your jobs. But it is happening and automation will change the way a workplace looks like. This also means the nature of employment will change, requiring new and different skills for a new work environment. But what sort of skills? What type of jobs of the future are safe from automation? And more importantly what are tips that you can know about thinking about your future. All of your questions will be answered in the next part of the article, till then cheers and be awesome!