What Parts Of The Workforce Might Be Safe From Robots?

Sep 4, 2017
Originally published on September 4, 2017 3:50 pm
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It's Labor Day, so we're looking at jobs on this week's All Tech Considered.


SHAPIRO: Today we're kicking off a new series that looks at how advances in artificial intelligence are changing our work. It's called Is My Job Safe? We'll look at specific industries where jobs might be disappearing or changing. To begin, we're going to look at which parts of the workforce might be relatively safe from the robots. We're joined by Erik Brynjolfsson. He directs the MIT Initiative on the Digital Economy. Welcome to the program.

ERIK BRYNJOLFSSON: Good to be here.

SHAPIRO: Back in 2004, Researchers at MIT and Harvard published a list of professions that they felt were most and least likely to undergo automation. And one example they gave of a job that could not possibly be automated in the future was truck driving.


SHAPIRO: And today automated vehicles are being tested on the roads. Already the job of truck driving could be completely automated. So your job is to try to predict which jobs will be automated in the future. But I wonder, are humans really able to make these kinds of predictions? The evidence seems to be that we're not very good at it.

BRYNJOLFSSON: It's definitely not easy. There's constantly new innovations coming along, as there should be. And so we have to update our insights from time to time.

SHAPIRO: Well, with that as a caveat, how much of the U.S. workforce would you say is at risk of automation in the coming decades? Are we talking about, like, 10 percent, 50 percent, 80 percent?

BRYNJOLFSSON: Well, I've got to give you some perspective. There's constantly automation of huge chunks of the workforce. And there's new jobs being created and old jobs being automated. And that's going to happen in the next 10 years. I wouldn't be surprised if 50 percent or more of the existing jobs had to change drastically or were eliminated. And hopefully another 50 percent of new jobs will be created at the same time.

SHAPIRO: What do you see as the sector of the workforce that is least likely to change or least likely to disappear?

BRYNJOLFSSON: Well, there are three big categories that machines are really bad at. They've made tremendous advances, but they're bad at first off doing creative work. Whether you're an entrepreneur or a scientist or a novelist, I think you're in pretty good shape doing that long-range creativity. The second big category is interpersonal skills and emotional intelligence, people who are coaches or salespeople or negotiators or caregivers. And the third one is actually manual dexterity and physical mobility. Machines have a hard time doing simple things like picking up a nickel or walking up stairs or clearing a table.

And so jobs that depend on that will also be safe for a while. And I think the right way to think about it is not so much looking at jobs, but looking at tasks 'cause almost every job has parts of them that are in one of those three categories, or maybe all three, and other parts that will be affected or even automated.

SHAPIRO: It's interesting 'cause when I think about how that translates to education, there's been such an emphasis on science and technology education. But it sounds like you're saying one of the sectors that's likely to be safest is sort of creative work that would suggest liberal arts education.

BRYNJOLFSSON: Absolutely. In fact, I think there's probably no better time in history to be somebody with some real creative insights. And then the technology helps you leverage that to millions or billions of people. And people who can combine some creativity with an understanding of the digital world are especially well-positioned.

SHAPIRO: Would you say that blue-collar workers are generally more likely to be replaced by robots than white-collar workers? We hear so much about people in manufacturing being replaced by automation.

BRYNJOLFSSON: Well, the truth is most blue-collar work has already been automated. I mean, there's - less than 10 percent of Americans now work in the manufacturing sector. I don't think it's so much of a blue collar-white collar division. The big waves have been more structured work versus less structured work, with more structured work being automated faster and work that involves creativity and interpersonal skills as being more robust in the long run.

SHAPIRO: If people are at the midpoint in their career right now and they want to prepare themselves for the oncoming robot invasion (laughter), what can they do to make it less likely that they will ultimately someday be replaced?

BRYNJOLFSSON: Well, I don't think as a society we're investing enough in education and training and thinking about how to handle this transition. More people should be thinking about the ways we're talking about it right now.

SHAPIRO: Erik Brynjolfsson directs the Initiative on the Digital Economy at MIT, and his latest book is called "Machine, Platform, Crowd." Thanks a lot.

BRYNJOLFSSON: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.