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Think You're Important At Work? A Robot Could Probably Do Your Job Today

And guess what? It doesn't matter if you're a CEO or a minimum wage worker.

[Photos: Baloncici via Shutterstock]

Over the last few years, we've heard a lot about how artificial intelligence could put large numbers of people out of work. An often-cited study from Oxford University found that 47% of jobs in America are at "high risk of computerization" in the next 20 years. And more recent research from Forrester predicts a net loss of 9.1 million jobs in the next decade.

A new McKinsey report sees things slightly differently. Yes, advances in AI and the like will cause a big wave of automation, it says. But it won't necessarily lead to job losses. Rather, many jobs will be redefined by technology, with the boring, rote stuff done by computers, and the exciting, creative stuff done by humans.

The research says 45% of paid activities could be automated using "currently demonstrated technologies," and that these activities represent about $2 trillion in annual wages. Sixty percent of occupations could have 30% or more of their activities automated, but only 5% of occupations could be eliminated completely, at least using today's tech.

Writing up the research in the McKinsey Quarterly, Michael Chui, James Manyika and Mehdi Miremadi say:

Very few occupations will be automated in their entirety in the near or medium term. Rather, certain activities are more likely to be automated, requiring entire business processes to be transformed, and jobs performed by people to be redefined, much like the bank teller’s job was redefined with the advent of ATMs.

The researchers arrive at their numbers by looking at about 2,000 work activities and analyzing each across 18 capabilities that can be automated already (say, the ability of robots to navigate the physical environment). The ability of machines to "understand" natural language is a bit of an anomaly. McKinsey says if computers could reach a "median level of human performance" in this regard, it could lead to another 13% of work activities being automated.

The consultants don't find a relationship between automation potential and wage levels. Twenty percent of what CEOs do could be automated, they say, while health aides and landscapers may be completely unaffected. Says the article:

The magnitude of automation potential reflects the speed with which advances in artificial intelligence and its variants, such as machine learning, are challenging our assumptions about what is automatable. It’s no longer the case that only routine, codifiable activities are candidates for automation and that activities requiring "tacit" knowledge or experience that is difficult to translate into task specifications are immune to automation.

Automation clearly presents a lot of benefits to companies, and not only because of reduced labor costs. It estimates the pay-off could equal three to 10 times the cost of investment, and says artificial intelligence will generally free up people to be more creative. For example, financial advisors could spend less time analyzing their clients' finances (computers will do that) and more time understanding needs and explaining options.

It's worth noting that the discussion only encompasses currently available technology. It says nothing about the implications of future advances, which are surely coming. Robots may well take over eventually, putting many people out of work, just not quite yet.

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