Almost 47 percent of US jobs could be computerized within one or two decades according to a recent study that attempts to gauge the growing impact of computers on the job market. It isn't only manual labor jobs that could be affected: The study reveals a trend of computers taking over many cognitive tasks thanks to the availability of big data. It suggests two waves of computerization, with the first substituting computers for people in logistics, transportation, administrative and office support and the second affecting jobs depending on how well engineers crack computing problems associated with human perception, creative and social intelligence.

Released by the Oxford Martin Programme on the Impacts of Future Technology, the study entitled The future of employment: how susceptible are jobs to computerization? evaluated around 700 jobs, classifying them based on how likely they are to be computerized, from low risk occupations (recreational therapists, emergency management directors and healthcare social worker) to high risk ones (library technicians, data entry keyers and telemarketers).

The availability of big data was identified as a major trend that's given engineers huge amounts of complex data to work with, which has made it possible for computers to deal with problems that, until recently, only people could handle. For instance, pattern recognition software applied to patient records, clinical trials, medical reports and journals makes it possible for computers to be used as diagnostic tools, comparing data to arrive at the best possible treatment plan.

Fraud detection, pre-trial research in legal cases, stock-trading and patient-monitoring are now handled by software after the arrival of big data. "Such algorithmic improvements over human judgement are likely to become increasingly common," the study says. "Although the extent of these developments remains to be seen, estimates by McKinsey Global Institute (2013) suggests that sophisticated algorithms could substitute for approximately 140 million full-time knowledge workers worldwide."

A sketch showing jobs evaluated as a function of the 3 bottlenecks and the likelihood of computerization (0 = none; 1 = certain) (Image: Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael A. Osborne)

The study suggests how improvements in sensor technology will offer enough big data to engineers to help solve problems in robotic development that were previously holding back the field. "These will permit an algorithmic vehicle controller to monitor its environment to a degree that exceeds the capabilities of any human driver," the study says with respect to self-driving vehicles. "Algorithms are thus potentially safer and more effective drivers than humans."

It also highlights how technological advances have allowed robots to take over manual labor in agriculture, construction, manufacturing as well as household and personal services such as lawn mowing, vacuuming and elderly care. "This means that many low-wage manual jobs that have been previously protected from computerization could diminish over time," it states.

Jobs requiring perception and manipulation, creative and social intelligence were identified as those least likely to be computerized. For instance, jobs that involve consulting other people, negotiating agreements, resolving problems and co-ordinating activities require a great deal of social intelligence, which computers are unlikely to take over. "Most management, business, and finance occupations, which are intensive in generalist tasks requiring social intelligence, are largely confined to the low risk category," the study says. "The same is true of most occupations in education, healthcare, as well as arts and media jobs."

Science and engineering jobs that require a great deal of creative intelligence aren't susceptible to computerization, it states. "The pace at which these bottlenecks can be overcome will determine the extent of computerization in the twenty-first century" the study finds.

The study predicts that computers will substitute people in low-wage and low-risk jobs in the near future. "Our findings thus imply that as technology races ahead, low-skill workers will reallocate to tasks that are non-susceptible to computerization – i.e., tasks requiring creative and social intelligence. For workers to win the race, however, they will have to acquire creative and social skills."

High-wage and high-skill jobs are least likely to be computerized, the study concludes. An appendix containing the full list of jobs considered can be found at the end of the study, which was conducted by The University of Oxford's Dr. Michael A. Osborne and Dr. Carl Benedikt Frey of Oxford Martin School.

Source: The future of employment: how susceptible are jobs to computerization? (PDF), via Kurzweil AI