Report: Robots could replace half of American workers. What can be done?

As robots and computers become increasingly sophisticated, they put greater numbers of workers at risk of replacement. And it's not just low-skill jobs that are vulnerable.

Charlie Riedel/AP
Robots fasten parts on a new 2015 aluminum-alloy body Ford F-150 truck in the body shop at the company's Kansas City Assembly Plant in Claycomo, Mo., in March.

A report on the future of technology in the workplace predicts that as many as 47 percent of US jobs are at risk in coming years due to increasing computerization, and that one of the best hopes for keeping people employed may come from a dedicated effort to improve a lagging American education system.

The study, released in February, is part of a series co-produced by the Oxford Martin School at the University of Oxford and Citigroup that explores the most pressing global challenges of the 21st  century.

Michael Osborne, Citi Global Perspectives and Solutions project partner and Oxford Associate Professor of Machine Learning, has spoken in recent interviews about his part of the study, examining the characteristics of 702 occupations in the US.

According to the report, food service jobs face 87 percent of risk of being replaced by robo burger chefs and counter help.

The nearly 4 million Americans who work in the transportation industry are at risk from autonomous cars and trucks; up to 75 percent of jobs could be computerized in coming decades. In real estate, 67 percent of jobs could become automated.

By contrast, only about 10 percent of workers in the information sector, which include software developers and higher level management, were at risk of automation.

A 2014 PEW Research study, “AI, Robotics and the Future of Jobs” found deep divisions among experts as to whether technological advances would create enough jobs for those they displaced.  

The PEW study noted that new technologies could create opportunities for some high-skilled workers to "succeed wildly," but could force others into low-paying service jobs or permanent unemployment. The survey also pointed out inadequate preparations being made for these potential economic upheavals:

“Our educational system is not adequately preparing us for work of the future, and our political and economic institutions are poorly equipped to handle these hard choices.”

"It’s going to take quite a bit of commitment from the public sector in order to fund the appropriate education programs and the appropriate worker training programs,” says Joe Seydl, Senior Associate of Citi’s Global Economics Team who was part of the report's working group, in an interview.

“All over the Scandinavian countries, we see much more willingness to fund education and to provide equal opportunity for skill development. In addition, there is a bigger safety net there to catch workers and to train them up to par. So that’s the big challenge for the US: whether the opportunity can be provided for those at the middle and bottom to get the skills they need to become attractive in the modern labor market.”

Mr. Seydl says, “We know that automation is going to displace a lot of the jobs that currently exist. The question is: will workers be able to transition into new sectors, different sectors, and be employed elsewhere?”

While these concerns may sound to some like problems faced as far back as the Industrial Revolution, when mechanical muscles began to displace human and animal labor, coming technological changes may require a more drastic overhaul of society.

“In the 19th century the majority of workers were employed in agriculture, and then technology completely disrupted that industry until, today, less than two percent of workers are employed in agriculture,” Seydl adds. “We didn’t have pervasive unemployment because people shifted out of agriculture into the manufacturing sector in the 20th Century.”

"There’s a question as to whether it’s going to be different this time and this is what we entertain throughout our report." Seydl says. "Many of the new technologies, because of advancements in artificial intelligence, are disrupting a lot of traditional service sector jobs that we thought were not automatable, for example paralegals. Computer programs can now read court cases and do the work of traditional case reviewers.”

“This time, bigger portions of our economy are being disrupted by new technology,” he says. “I think it’s going to come down to policy: supply-side and demand-side policies. Supply-side means making sure workers have the skills to compete for jobs in the 21st century. This is going to come down to education and whether we can upgrade workers’ skills fast enough.”

If workers have the right skills, they may be able to make transitions to new jobs available in programming and servicing new technology. Computers can’t yet do the work of the creative thinker with “social intelligence,” making the jobs of courtroom litigators safer than those of the paralegals who compile data.

If implemented, these changes would not be cheap. Seydl says investments need to be made in making education more affordable and focusing curricula at universities on new technologies. He also looks to an effective “demand side policy,” spending that creates the new jobs in new sectors.

The report's writers are hopeful, however, that technological advances may make necessary learning about new technologies cheaper and easier in coming years. 

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