Print Version    Email to Friend
Can a robot do your job?


An important document on the The Future of Employment: How Susceptible are Jobs to Computerisation was published by the Oxford University Engineering Sciences Department and the Oxford Martin Programme on the Impact of Future Technology in September 2013.
The authors of the document attempt to assess what percentage of jobs in the United States of American (US) economy will be taken over by artificial intelligence and robots during the next two decades.
They began by scrutinising data on O*NET, an online service which has been developed by the Department of Labour in the US. The 2010 version of O*NET contains detailed information on 903 different occupations.
In other words, it defines key features of an occupation as a standardised and measurable set of variables. This breakdown of the component parts of the occupation allows researchers to objectively rank occupations according to the mix of knowledge, skills and abilities they require.
Researchers can also categorise various occupations based on a variety of tasks they involve. As a result of their study, they have been able to develop a dataset which consists of 702 occupations.
It is important to state that the O*NET data is not gathered specifically to clarify whether or not a particular job could be performed by a robot or artificial intelligence within any specified period of time.
But the question to be answered is, “Can the tasks required by this job be sufficiently specified, conditional on the availability of big data, to be performed by state of the art computer-controlled equipment.”
If the answer is yes, then that occupation was given a value of one. Researchers found that a staggering 47 per cent of US employment is in the high risk category.
This means that it and similar occupations are potentially automatable within the next 20 years. For example with the major strides that have been made in the development of computerised cars, it is likely that much of our transport network will consist of automatic vehicles 20 years from now.
Many occupations in the low-wage service industry could also be carried out by machines. But this potential threat is not being factored into the equation by governments or other interested parties that are making employment projections.
In the US for example, economists at the Bureau of Labour Statistics expect that 700,000 new jobs in the service industries will be created between 2013 and 2020. 
But these projections fail to factor in how robots and artificial intelligence may change these figures considerably.
We can already see this happening in companies such as Amazon. In 2013, Amazon purchased a warehouse robotic company called Kiva Systems.
This device moves through the company warehouses and uses grids and barcodes on the floor to locate and deliver items to workers who are packing an order.
In 2013, Amazon had acquired 1,400 Kiva units. A Wall Street analyst predicts that the use of such technology could allow Amazon to cut its order fulfilment costs by 40 per cent.
But Amazon’s goal is to develop market share and lower costs, not boost employment figures. The Oxford study points out that by 2013, the demand for personal and household robots was growing by 20 percent per annum.
As computer power increases, occupations such as cashiers, counter and retail clerks will also be susceptible to being performed by machines.
Finally, even the construction industry, which often provides numerous unskilled jobs, will be affected by the robot revolution, as significant functions in the industry are carried out in controlled factory conditions.
The conclusion of the Oxford study is “that recent developments in computer power will put a substantial share of employment, across a wide range of occupations, at risk in the near future.”
The study claims that after this initial wave of automation, there will be a slow-down period until much more powerful computers that can overcome the engineering bottleneck which is related to creativity and social intelligence can be developed.
It is crystal clear that “occupations involving the development of novel ideas and artefacts are the least susceptible to computerisation.”
On the wages level, the Oxford Study predicts that low to medium wage jobs are more susceptible to computer capital than high-skill highly paid occupations.

• Father Sean McDonagh