In the past, the idea of human workers being replaced by technology may have brought to mind images of robotic appendages polishing sheets of metal or moving car parts into position. However, drastic advancements in computer science and machine learning have allowed technology to take on roles in industries that span far beyond manufacture and construction. With the aid of deep learning engines, computer algorithms have become capable of navigating busy roads, translating complex thoughts, and diagnosing disease, among many other tasks once presumed exclusive to humans. Amidst these rapid developments, it’s understandable that many people worry their own jobs may be taken over by technology. Fortunately, it is possible to estimate the risk of your own job being automated by analyzing a few key factors. If your job does not involve the following three elements, it may be relatively easy for technology to fill your role.
One critical factor in determining whether a job can be automated is the degree to which it involves repetitive tasks. In 2013, Oxford University published a report that predicted the likelihood of various jobs being computerized in the coming years. The most striking difference between the jobs at the top and bottom of the list is the degree of repetition involved. A small selection of the jobs assessed as having a 99% likelihood of forthcoming automation are hand sewing, data entry keying, telemarketing, and processing machine operation. Whether it’s drawing thread through fabric or reciting a sales pitch into a telephone, employees in these jobs spend the majority of their time completing a single task over and over. With no element of unpredictability or need to make complex decisions, automating these jobs is a relatively straightforward process.
2. Critical Thinking
Critical thinking is the process of evaluating a set of facts in order to reach a conclusion that is rational, unbiased, and constructive. Jobs which involve a high degree of variability often demand effective critical thinking skills. For example, consider some of the jobs which Oxford ranks towards the bottom of their list in terms of automatability: social workers, psychologists, and engineers. In these jobs, workers must assess complicated situations in order to determine the best course of action, adjusting their plans as they proceed. There is no prescribed way to counsel a person struggling with mental illness or to design a new piece of equipment that meets the needs of a client; following the same set of steps in every scenario would lead to disaster. Instead, employees must apply critical thinking skills to conceive and execute solutions that are tailored to the specifics of the situation. This element of complexity makes any role with a major critical thinking component complicated to automate.
When people discuss the tasks that computers couldn’t possibly take over, those mentioned first often involve personal interaction, where human qualities such as warmth and comfort are central to the role. In many of these cases, the concrete tasks involved in the role are of secondary importance to the sense of personal connection the employee imparts. For example, the Oxford study referenced above concluded that concierges have only a 21% chance of being replaced by technological equivalents in the future. While tasks such as making dinner reservations or providing information about local attractions seem like they could be automated with relative ease, the true value is in the sense of hospitality that comes from having a courteous human worker available to conduct these tasks.
Another reason why human interaction makes a role difficult to automate is connected to the elements of variability and critical thinking discussed above. Humans are inherently unpredictable, and the kind of problems they may present often require critical thinking to resolve. Another human is often better-equipped to handle these challenging factors than a computer would be.
However, it is worth noting that elements of human interaction do not guarantee that a job will not be automated. For example, workers who take orders at fast food establishments can be replaced by computer kiosks, and retail cashiers can be replaced by self-checkout machines. Both of these substitutions are occurring with increasing frequency in businesses across the country, indicating that human connection is not considered an indispensable aspect of the roles and the unpredictability of human behavior does not pose a significant problem in these contexts.
Of course, assessing the likelihood of human workers in your industry being replaced by technology is only the first step. Stay tuned for future installments in our automation series in which we’ll discuss how to avoid losing a job to automation and highlight jobs that are well-suited to being augmented, then analyze the ways that collaboration between humans and technology will continue to reshape jobs across industries in the future.