Robots to replace almost half of jobs over next 20 years: expert

Forty-seven per cent of jobs in the US will be overtaken by computers in the next decade or two, according to research.Forty-seven per cent of jobs in the US will be overtaken by computers in the next decade or two, according to research. Photo: Generic Thinkstock

By Jorge Branco

Robots and computer programs could almost wipe out human workers in jobs from cooks to truck drivers, a visiting researcher has warned.

Driverless cars and even burger-flipping robots are among the technological advancements gunning for low-skilled jobs across dozens of industries.

University of Oxford Associate Professor in machine learning Michael Osborne has examined the characteristics of 702 occupations in the US, predicting 47 per cent will be overtaken by computers in the next decade or two.

University of Oxford Associate Professor in machine learning Michael Osborne.University of Oxford Associate Professor in machine learning Michael Osborne. Photo: Supplied

Those most at-risk jobs are in accommodation and food services (87 per cent of workers at high risk of being replaced), transportation and warehousing (75 per cent) and real estate (67 per cent).

By contrast, only about 10 per cent of workers in the information sector, software developers and higher level management were at risk of automation.

Professor Osborne said machines and computers still struggled with creativity, social intelligence and the manipulation of complex objects, making jobs with high requirements in these areas less vulnerable to robotisation.

“What unites all those bottlenecks [in computer ability] is kind of a deep reservoir of tacit knowledge humans possess that’s not readily reproducible in software,” he said.

“For example, in order to be creative, you need to understand the creative values of the society in which you find yourself.

“It’s very easy to design an algorithm that endlessly churns out paintings or pieces of music but it’s very difficult to get that algorithm to distinguish between good pieces of music and bad pieces of music.”

While the results, which Professor Osborne had been reproduced with similar results in the UK and Scandinavia, are bad news for individuals, they don’t necessarily predict a sky-rocketing unemployment rate as machines take over the workforce.

History is full of examples of machines replacing workers.

At the start of the 20th century about 40 per cent of US workers were in agriculture. That’s now about two per cent but the unemployment rate has remained relatively steady.

The invention of the car savaged jobs in the horse transport industry but gave rise to tourism and all the jobs that come with it.

In the early 19th century the Luddites rioted against labour-replacing machinery in the English textile industry, coining a name for someone resistant to change.

“These people weren’t irrational. There were genuine risks to their jobs,” Professor Osborne said.

“And while overall in the end unemployment wasn’t affected, there certainly were very severe negative consequences for those workers in the short term.

“I think the story here is fairly similar actually that in the end, yes we may see new forms of work generated but it’s not  clear that the kind of people who are put out of work, which I said ought to be those at the low-skilled end of the spectrum, are necessarily going to be those that move into those new forms of work.”

Technology will need to become more user-friendly and create new kinds of jobs given there would always be a resistance to its adoption, Professor Osborne said.

But Hollywood’s imagery of terminators and other self-aware robots wreaking havoc was not a healthy narrative to consider, he said.

“In the long term yes, we will see machines that may be potentially so intelligent as to have goals that aren’t consistent with our own and there might be consequences of that,” he said.

“But I think in the near term the larger question is that of employment really, and how people’s work might be affected by increasing automation.”

Professor Osborne is in Brisbane to speak about the future of work at the Queensland University of Technology on Tuesday.

He said many newly created industries such as software development and big data analysis weren’t creating as many jobs as thought but renewable energy industries were booming in the US and said Australian governments should be fostering similar innovation.

“There’s not a single silver bullet solution to this issue but investing in those new industries is certainly an important plank,” he said.

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