Is your job safe from our new computer-programmed overlords? A good way of answering this question is to break down what you do into its parts, and then ask what capabilities automated machines may have in the future. This is what a major new analysis does, and the upshot for much of us isn't good. Computers are winning.
This shouldn't surprise us. Machines have been replacing jobs for years—just ask wool-spinners and book-keepers from the 19th century, or auto workers who've lost out to robots. If anything, though, the pace and breadth of replacement could be about to grow. Huge increases in computer power and intelligence could make automation possible in all sorts of fields—and not just in areas you might expect.
The study from researchers at Oxford University finds that 47% of jobs in the U.S. are at "high risk" of computerization over the next two decades. That includes positions in transport and logistics (as a result of self-driving vehicles), "the bulk of office and administrative support," more roles in manufacturing (robots), and spots in services, sales and construction occupations (more pre-fabrication in factories will reduce the need for on-site workers, for instance).
It doesn't stop there: Carl Frey and Michael Osborne also forecast trouble for workers in mining and food preparation (e.g. lettuce pickers), legal and financial services (machines will do a better job of reading press releases and selling stocks at the correct moment), for police and CCTV operators, and medical staff (who'll be overtaken by monitoring equipment and diagnostic machines).
The analysis looks at 702 occupations, assessing each across nine variables, like the level of "negotiation," "persuasion," and "manual dexterity" required. These are "engineering roadblocks" that the researchers think stop jobs from being computerized. The paper explains:
"Manual Dexterity," low (level) corresponds to "Screw a light bulb into a light socket"; medium (level) is exemplified by "Pack oranges in crates as quickly as possible"; high (level) is described as "Perform open-heart surgery with surgical instruments."
The researchers predict two broad waves of technological disruption. The transport, logistics, and administrative workers are set to come under pressure first. Then, technology is likely to dis-intermediate "sales and service people." "Although these occupations involve interactive tasks, they do not necessarily require a high degree of social intelligence," the paper says.
It's important to point out that the authors only look at the question from a technology point of view: "which problems engineers need to solve for specific occupations to be automated." They don't ask whether the jobs will actually be automated (which also has something to do with politics, economics, and lawmaking). Still the main point stands: A technological tsunami is coming, and if we think that computers have replaced a lot of jobs already, we haven't seen anything yet.