Baxter the industrial robot, a product of Rethink Robotics in Boston, is shown here tinkering with a computer. One new study out of Oxford predicts that almost half of American jobs in the next two decades could be replaced in part by robots like Baxter.

Credit: PDTillman / Wikimedia Commons

Our Disappearing Jobs

October 4, 2013


If you were to travel back in time 20 or 30 years and tell the first person you saw that machines in the future could read your checks, deposit them, and dispense exactly the amount of money you needed whenever you needed it, you probably would get a few raised eyebrows.

Yet, how many times have you visited an ATM in the past month instead of a human bank teller?

Past waves of automation, like the rise of the industrial factory in the nineteenth century, displaced many workers from their previous occupations. This wave, says Osborne and Frey, may be even more drastic. Here, the Big Helios-Factory floor in Ehrenfeld, Cologne, Germany in 1895.
Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

In a new controversial study from Oxford University, researchers Michael Osborne and Carl Frey argue that this kind of automation is only the beginning. They predict that in the next twenty years an astounding 47 percent of American jobs may become automated. 

In their study, Osborne and Frey examined over 7oo occupations in the United States and assessed their susceptibility to automation.  The results were surprising. Not only did they find that transportation and logistics jobs were in danger - replacing jobs like trucking with automated machines - but indeed that the technology for such automation already exists.

Moreover, service occupations, where the most job growth has occurred over the past two decades, were deemed highly susceptible to computerization.

"I don't think many economists would have suspected that," Frey told Innovation Hub.

The drastic numbers of jobs endangered by machines is due, in large part, to the fact that the machines themselves are becoming more and more sophisticated and complex.

"Increasingly, machines are able to perform subtle judgments, are able to draw inferences from large amounts of data, and those capabilities represent the core components of jobs previously seen as un-automatable." 

Osborne and Frey predict jobs involving characteristics like negotiation - like lawyers - will be safe from automation for now.
Photo Credit: Lee J. Haywood / Flickr Creative Commons

In an era when machines are becoming increasingly sophisticated, which jobs are safe? Osborne and Frey identified a few characteristics that would be difficult for machines to replicate in the near future - like negotiation, originality, and social perceptiveness. Jobs that rely on these characteristics - like lawyers and doctors - made them relatively resistant to automation, at least for now.

But before you suddenly change your line of work, Osborne and Frey note that there's still a lot of uncertainty in their predictions.

"We're not  saying  47 percent will be unemployed," said Osborne. "We're saying there will be more turbulence in 47 percent of the workforce. Those jobs will disappear to presumably be replaced by other jobs."

In the beginning of the 20th century in 1900, 40 percent of US workforce engaged in agriculture. At end, that number was less than 2 percent, and yet throughout the century unemployment remained fairly stable as technology created new jobs to replace the old ones, Osborne noted.

To hear more about this controversial study - including how the referees, insurance agents, and perhaps even judges of the future may be displaced by machines -  listen to our full interview above. 

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