People have been replaced by checkout machines in supermarkets, telephone helplines have been manned by automatons for a decade and the robots could soon be coming for your job, whatever it is.
The robotic revolution promises a world of increased productivity and convenience, but has also led to fears that it could replace many of our jobs.
However, they might not be coming for as many of us as you think. A new report by the Brookings Institution, analysing data from sources, including consultancy McKinsey, concludes that in the US, just half a percent of the workforce – about 740,000 people – are in roles which could be fully replaced by machines.
But many others are in jobs which face partial replacement, and some sectors have an unusually high number of roles which could be done – at least in part – by a robot. In one in four jobs, 70% of work could potentially be automated.
Of course, modernity has been extremely kind to certain sectors, and those with technical skills like computer programming have benefited from the tech boom. Analysis suggests that technology provides employment for 11.5m workers in the USA and more than two million in the UK.
The report suggests retraining workers to let them capitalise on the growing industry by giving them in-demand skills such as coding, as well as changing education to focus on qualities that are much easier for humans than for machines, such as creativity, empathy and ethics.
The report’s authors calculated how much of the work that an individual might do in their current job could be done by a robot – the job’s “automation potential” – and then examined the characteristics of those jobs and the people who do them.
The results are a useful insight into who is likely to fall prey to the robot revolution, and they also show how the career choices of different groups affect their risk of being replaced by a machine.
Those working in office admin, production, transportation or food preparation are the most threatened by robot workers, with more than 70% of their responsibilities liable to be automated, while more secure jobs include professional roles which require a high level of education, as well as low-paying jobs such as caring which demand interpersonal skills and emotional intelligence.
Popular wisdom would assume that low-paying, repetitive, routine roles are most at risk, and this is broadly true – but more advanced artificial intelligence is now threatening higher-wage jobs too. The paper cites a researcher whose as-yet unpublished work suggests that technological advances could mean people who work in abstract, rather than manual roles could also be threatened by non-human competitors.
Men are more likely than women to work in vulnerable sectors. While men work in roles which are on average 43% open to being automated, this drops to 40% for female workers. This is because women make up a high proportion of workers in jobs which involve emotional intelligence and human-to-human interaction, such as healthcare and education. Men make up more than 70% of the workforce in production, more than 80% in transportation and 90% in construction and installation.
But there is a high proportion of women in some sectors which could be vulnerable. The average worker in an office or administrative job could be replaced by a robot in around 60% of their tasks, and women make up 70% of the US’s clerical and administrative workforce.
Your education level is also a good indicator of how vulnerable you are likely to be. Those who did not finish high school are in roles which have an automation potential of 54% on average, while for those with a graduate degree it’s just 25%.
Being young is another thing that would make you more vulnerable to the robot takeover. While millennials and the generation above them – those aged from 25 to 54 – work in jobs in which 40% of their tasks could be automated, this rises to 49% among 16-24 year-olds.
Young people are more likely to be in roles like food service, making up almost a third of those working in this sector. Almost 30% of people in this age group are in jobs where 70% of the things they do could be done by a robot.
The details are likely to be different in different countries, but different ethnicities may also face different levels of risk.
In the US, particular ethnic groups are also vulnerable because they make up a higher proportion of industries which could be more automated, like construction and mining, where a third of workers are Hispanic. Black workers are less vulnerable because they make up a higher proportion of those in health and personal care roles.