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The Robocalypse Shouldn't Give You Sleepless Nights

March 6, 2017
Good rule of thumb: The higher your pay, the lower your chances of being replaced in the workplace by a robot.

In the debate about the impact of automation and robotics on the future of work, there is often a reductive push toward a Robocalypse, in which machines take all of the jobs. While a total displacement of humans is unlikely, a number of different types of jobs do face an existential threat. This is typically low-skill, low-education, and low-income work that often includes significant manual labor and predictively repetitive tasks.

According to a recent report by the McKinsey Global Institute, some sectors, such as manufacturing and transportation, have high technical potential for automation. But other sectors, such as education, management, professionals, information and health care, have much lower automation potential. In other words, the Robocalypse is a much lower risk for educated workers.

This notion that higher-skilled professionals are safe is also supported by “Artificial Intelligence, Automation and the Economy,” a report from the Executive Office of the President that was released in December 2016. It highlighted that 83% of jobs that pay less than $20 per hour have a high probability of automation, while jobs that pay more than $40 per hour only have a 4% chance of automation.

The report also showed that 44% of jobs that require less than a high school diploma are “highly automatable,” while no jobs that require graduate degrees are “highly automatable.” In addition, only 1% of jobs that require a B.A. are viewed as highly automatable.

Against this backdrop of highly intuitive data — showing education, skills and income as the great dividers between being robot-proof or in line to be a victim of the Robocalypse — the debate over the number of jobs that can be automated out of existence rages on. There is a focus on large scary numbers from studies that show Chinese automation potential for 77% of jobs, or Indian automation potential for 69% of jobs.

These numbers make for tremendous clickbait, but the reality is much more mundane: If you want to be robot-proof, you need to build skills and obtain more education. You must also be flexible in the face of future labor market changes. Those who do not will be steamrolled.

The future impact of technology may be less like the Borg and more like an ATM. But presenting that view in pop culture, however reasonable, isn’t as compelling — because it isn’t as exciting. Most technology is seamlessly absorbed into society, which is likely to remain true in the future. And the scary prospects of the Robocalypse may just be overhyped, because of the cinematic value.

Perhaps this is why, to my knowledge, only documentaries — and not movies — have been made about the invention of ATMs and industrial robots that factories use. Maybe scripts for movies about ATMs and robotic arms scripts have been written, but I doubt it. The tech is just not that exciting. It’s very convenient and boosts productivity, but it isn’t blockbuster worthy. And we might say the same about self-driving cars, and fully-automated, wireless supermarkets in the not-too-distant future: very convenient, but mundane and expected after a time.

For those who are scared that robots will take the jobs, know that they will take some of the jobs, but not all of them. And there is a simple answer why:

It is education, which is both the greatest weapon we have against the Robocalypse, and the best tool with which we can equip our population to be productive and engaged members of society. Leveraging the technology we have to stay relevant as technology develops and impacts the labor market is critical. This includes taking advantage of remote education opportunities, including global Massive Open Online Courses, which have experienced huge growth, globally. Staying ahead of the curve by continually learning — and gaining more education and skills — will be the most important determinant of personal success or failure as we transition from the information age to the automation age. Fortunately, with in-hand classrooms and in-hand labor markets, we have more opportunities to grow, adapt, and find new jobs than ever before.

We just need to make sure we are on the right side of that trade.

This Bloomberg View essay by Jason Schenker is excerpted from “Jobs for Robots: Between Robocalypse and Robotopia,” released by Prestige Professional Publishing.

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