Why Robots Could Take Over Almost Half Of Human Jobs

Will your workers soon be replaced by iEmployees? A recent study found that 47 percent of 702 jobs across various industries were at risk of becoming completely computerized.
October 16, 2013

The rise of the machines may be more than a sci-fi movie plot twist.

After analyzing 702 jobs across various industries, two researchers from Oxford University found that 47 percent of these occupations were at risk of becoming completely computerized, Fast Company recently reported. With every technological advance, from increasingly sensitive sensors to algorithms complex enough to catch the nuances of human interaction, people may soon find that their jobs can be done faster and more cheaply by digital avatars and machines.

"The secular price decline in the real cost of computing has created vast economic incentives for employers to substitute labour for computer capital," the researchers write. And this is projected to happen in industries across the board, from manufacturing and material moving (blame Google's headway on a driverless car) to customer service to legal professions. According to the Oxford researchers, any task that can be restructured to remove the need for high-level perception and manipulation, and creative and social intelligence, has a high likelihood of being computerized.

This news is just the latest in hand-wringing over robots taking human jobs, a concern that's been around since the Industrial Revolution. The New York Times pointed out in an op-ed this past summer that affordable technology has decreased the demand for "routine" jobs—tasks that involve "organizing, storing, retrieving and manipulating information, or executing exactly defined physical movements in production processes." But that's not the worst part:

Logically, computerization has reduced the demand for these jobs, but it has boosted demand for workers who perform “nonroutine” tasks that complement the automated activities. Those tasks happen to lie on opposite ends of the occupational skill distribution.

That means the people who stand to be hurt the most from the increased computerization of the workforce will be the middle class.

But before you have workers start packing a cardboard box to make way for an iEmployee, consider this: Robots can't do it all, and in some cases are creating jobs for humans.

Last year Amazon acquired Kiva Systems, which creates robots for warehouse automation. The $775 million buy was feared to significantly reduce the number of human employees who, unlike their robotic counterparts, complained of having to walk 15 miles a day through Amazon's cavernous warehouses to fulfill orders. Instead Amazon recently announced that it would hire 70,000 temporary hires and expects thousands to stay on as full-time hires, The Motley Fool reports. Why? The company still needs people to pull items from the bins those robots move with ease.

The same is true at the Rodon Group, a Pennsylvania-based plastic parts manufacturer, CBS News reports. Its staff includes Baxter, a robot programmed to do the mind-numbing routine work most people can't stand. Baxter can work by himself, or with his human colleagues—he has six facial expressions to get his "thoughts" across. He's a great addition to the team, and has even spurred job creation at the factory, explains Lowell Allen, the Rodon Group's vice president: 

"He doesn't necessarily replace anyone. In fact, we need to hire skilled people to maintain and program those pieces of equipment. They just enable jobs to be performed more efficiently and therefore less expensively."

Photo: Getty Images