In 2013, Oxford professors Carl Frey and Michael Osborne published what became a highly read and highly cited study suggesting that machines could replace 47% of America’s jobs over the next 25 years. To say that they got the business world’s attention is a little bit like saying Ted Williams was a pretty good ballplayer.
The study, which examined more than 700 US occupations, found that jobs in transportation, logistics, and administrative and office work are at “high risk” for automation. “We identified several key bottlenecks currently preventing occupations being automated,” said Dr. Osborne when the study was released. “As big data helps to overcome these obstacles, a great number of jobs will be put at risk.”
Consider transportation. As of July 17, 2015, more than 20 Google self-driving cars have logged more than 1.9 million miles around California streets and have yet to cause an accident, although they’ve been hit 14 times by other cars, 11 of those hits being rearenders. So, how long do you think it will be before the transportation industry latches onto the self-driving phenomenon as a way to cut costs and increase productivity?
And logistics? Even now, Amazon and other retailers are flying drones around their warehouses delivering material for shipment, work that, before Dronedom, actual human beings performed, albeit more slowly and, every once in a while, with a bit of breakage.
The productivity increase is awesome, indeed. But the trade-off is a human job.
Of course, someone has to keep the drones flying. And someone has to keep Google’s cars humming along. This is a point the good Drs. Frey and Osborne did not examine deeply in their 2013 paper- that as jobs are eliminated due to automation, other jobs, more complex in most cases, will be created. This from the paper:
Our findings imply that as technology races ahead, low-skilled workers will move to tasks that are not susceptible to computerization – i.e., tasks that require creative and social intelligence. For workers to win the race, however, they will have to acquire creative and social skills.
But, hang on a minute. Just when we begin to think that Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis” is a’comin round the corner like an out-of-control, self-driving 18-wheeler, Forrester Research released yesterday The Future of Jobs, 2025: Working Side-By-Side With Robots (the study may be purchased from Forrester for $499.00). Authored by Forrester analyst J. P. Gownder, the paper only looks out ten years, compared to Frey and Osborne’s 25. Even so, Gownder’s prognosis is nowhere as bleak as the Oxfordians’. They postulate a total job loss of 71 million. Gownder, using government data and many interviews with business execs, academics and pundits, suggests a net job loss of 9.1 million, or 7% of the workforce. Where I come from, J. P., that’s a lot of jobs, but I take your point.
Notwithstanding the competing research, what we can say is that big change is not coming; it’s already here. This is an industrial era evolution. There have been many before. Remember that before the automobile, there was a thriving market for buggy whips.
This is one of the topics I’ll be covering on Thursday, October 29, in my Keynote Address to the Idaho Industrial Commission’s 2015 Annual Seminar on Workers’ Compensation. I’ll be discussing how artificial intelligence, along with two other emerging employment issues, is impacting workers’ compensation and how smart employers can deal with it successfully.
Meanwhile, here’s a little something for workers who awaken one day to find their newest work partner is no longer Homo Sapiens, but rather Ratus Robotus.