Money

Can You Trust a Bot to Tell You if Your Job Will Be Obsolete?

Automation is reshaping the workplace—and few jobs are safe.
April 18, 2018, 5:26pm
Illustration by Yiyang Cao

Not only are the robots taking our jobs, now they’re telling us about it.

That’s the I, Robot perspective on websites like Will Robots Take My Job? and Replaced by Robot!? that predict the chances that your job will vanish. Just type in your occupation and they'll coldly spew out the often dismal odds: landscaping (95% chance of automation), barber (80%), public relations specialist (18%). Ouch.

You may have noticed that bots are already in wide use for all kinds of applications, from medicine to the military. They're debriefing veterans with symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, writing stories that appear in newspapers, and editing videos. They're replacing bartenders, pharmacists, and farmers.

The good news is that robots won’t be completely replacing many jobs any time soon. “Very few occupations—less than 5 percent—are candidates for full automation," according to a 2017 report by consulting firm McKinsey. And while it should be easy for artificial intelligence to take over structured, repetitive tasks, mastering creativity—whether it's a CEO taking their company in a bold new direction or an industrial designer developing a new smartphone—may never happen.

Nonetheless, the financial impact will be huge: The tasks most susceptible to automation currently account for $2.7 trillion in annual wages in the US.

Is your job on the chopping block?

The occupations most likely to get taken over by bots fall mainly into two categories: those in structured, predictable physical environments, and ones involving data collection and processing. Examples include cashiers, meter readers, watch repairers, assembly line workers, switchboard attendants, textile machine setters, postmasters and superintendents, and respiratory technicians.

Even highly paid professionals like radiologists, who currently earn around $500,000 a year, could be replaced by robots in the not-so-distant future. That's because their work boils down, in part, to identifying patterns, something artificial intelligence already does quite well.

Robots could very well take over highly-paid jobs, such as those done by radiologists. Photo by Harry Sieplinga / HMS Images / Getty Images.

Are the job bots right?

The creators of the job bot sites never intended to develop a tongue-in-cheek narrative on society’s robot hysteria: They just wanted to be helpful. Both use job outlook data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics along with an analysis of hundreds of jobs susceptible to computerization from two University of Oxford researchers to serve up the odds that your job will disappear.

After Replaced by Robot founder Fabian Beiner learned about the Oxford researchers analysis of disappearing jobs, he says he worked on a way to make the data searchable. “It took me around 30 minutes, including buying the domain. I added some sharing buttons, posted it on my LinkedIn, posted it on HackerNews, and forgot about it.” That was back in 2015. Today, he says the page averages between 1,000 and 5,000 views per day.

It’s important to remember that the job bot sites are merely tools that access existing research. In other words, they just spit out data. But while the bot site makers didn’t do the research on which jobs will become obsolete, they do have a good grasp of which jobs done by humans are most at risk. “If you’re doing the same thing day in and day out, your job will most likely be replaced by software or hardware one day,” Beiner said.

How to keep the bots from stealing your job

We may not be anywhere close to a human-free workforce, but it’s clear by now that there are serious risks posed by automation, especially for those who work in a structured environment doing relatively simple, repetitive tasks.

But some skill sets are hard for bots to mimic. “Areas humans have an advantage in over machines are creativity, physical non-structured work, emotional work, and anything else that requires a sort of human touch,” said Mathew Lawrence, Senior Research Fellow at the UK’s Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) and co-author of a study on automation. “No one is saying to retrain as a space scientist, but getting better at the attributes that are harder to automate will help.”

The bots are also expected to create 15 million new jobs over the next 10 years (all while stealing 25 million others). “In general, the amount of data being produced these days is only going to increase with automation,” said Mubashar Iqbal, the developer behind Will Robots Take My Job?. “Being comfortable analyzing data to interpret what is going on in the system as a whole will be an important skill to have.”

The smartest move is to look into professions with the best growth prospects, including educators, corporate managers, and sales representatives, all of which require the human touch. Because with the right skill set, no robot will ever outsmart you.

Raj is a writer and marketing consultant based in Washington, D.C. who helps everyone from Fortune 500 brands to small agencies figure out this whole digital thing.

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