Framed by the seemingly constant appearance of new and disruptive technology and the ever widening access to smarter and smarter technology, there exists in the background, a public dialogue around how certain livelihoods and ways of life may be immediately threatened. While the word disruptive has certainly become a bit of a buzzword, it is beyond doubt that there has been a considerable reconfiguration of the global business landscape as Silicon Valley replicas are being set up around the world.

It is these recent developments that have led to such paradoxical practices such as buying a smartwatch for fear you may be looking at your phone too much – more technology to erode the permanence of the first wave of technology (when in possession of a smartwatch, one doesn’t need to necessarily take their phone out with every ping or notification – people can curate right away what they pay attention to).

We look at one of the recent mega-trends in technology, namely automation, and try to predict where it may be headed and what drives the insecurities around the topic.

Automating tasks, redefining jobs

Automation resurfacing in public conversation is somewhat misleading, since the concept has been around since the industrial age began – we all know the story of the Luddites.

The fundamental difference here is that new automation processes affect knowledge-related work rather than manual labour, and in an era when concepts such as the self-driving car or robot telemarketers are talked about in the media as feasible projects, there is also a lingering concern that for large segments of workers, this may mean redundancy.

In an Oxford University study entitled ‘The future of employment: how susceptible are jobs to computerisation?’, researchers Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael A. Osborne calculated the probability of the automation of specific jobs – from members of the clergy to budget analysts based on the duties their role entails.

Thus, the more ‘bottlenecks’ to automation the job entails, the less likely it is to be automated. These bottlenecks are traits such as negotiation skills, the ability to care for and assist others, perceptiveness, originality, and so on. Below are a few selected examples from both ends of the spectrum to show an overview of their predictions.

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Based on figures in Frey and Benedikt Study (2013)

Implications for the future of employment

Although the numerical estimates are rough, a clear picture emerges: there are of course the people whose jobs are under no threat – marriage therapists, members of the clergy, social workers and in general, people whose jobs require negotiation skills and being able to help others. On the other side of the spectrum, there are the jobs that entail tasks that can easily be structured or coded, such as analysing budgets, or manual tasks such as baking – the common trait between them being that both sets of activities are routine activities subject to following strict sets of rules.

McKinsey & Company conducted a few related studies, concluding that the computerisation of various jobs is not necessarily related to or dependent on the pay (or hourly wage) of the employee alone, revealing that even highly paid jobs such as financial planners are susceptible to automation if current technology was to be adapted. In the chart below it can be seen that up to 20% of chief executives’ current tasks could be automated – McKinsey explains this by pointing out that one potential scenario is a piece of software doing the necessary number crunching and suggesting operational decisions based on the figures.

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Source: O’NET 2014 database: McKinsey analysis


Substitution vs. augmentation

MIT economist David Autor also published a paper that explores the very notion of automating labourer tasks (whatever the field) to the extent that the employee is made redundant. Not only, he says, is this a monumentally expensive and time-consuming transformation, but automated systems still lack the ability to operate independently in unpredictable work environments.

Journalists and expert commentators overstate the extent of machine substitution for human labour and ignore the strong complementarities that increase productivity, raise earnings, and augment demand for skilled labour”, Autor says.

Augmenting, rather than eliminating, the role employees have in production, trade and information distribution, is no easy task for technology to take on. However, it is worth thinking beyond the benchmarks of what is currently achievable through what we think of as ‘work’ – provided there are substantial plans in place for populations that might have their roles redefined to encompass completely different duties. The redefinition of an employee’s role as automation is gradually implemented their field of work opens up possibilities to them mastering more and more sophisticated tasks that are complementary to the work performed by machines or software.