A recent study by Oxford University’s Engineering Sciences Department predicts that nearly half of all jobs are at high risk of computerisation over the next two decades. It was previously thought that only the most routine, repetitive tasks were likely to be automated, but a combination of advances in artificial intelligence and a new approach by professors Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael Osborne suggests that robots will dominate the future workforce. This will have a significant impact on our collective wellbeing.
Frey and Osborne identified three critical areas that constitute hindrances or ‘bottlenecks’ to the use of automation: perception and manipulation tasks that involve the analysis of irregular objects or situations; social intelligence tasks that involve emotionally-sensitive interactions; and creative intelligence tasks that involve, well, creativity.
Frey and Osborne determined the level of risk of over 900 occupations through the presence or absence of these bottlenecks in their skill-sets. The collated data showed that low-skill, low-wage jobs (47%) were at high risk while high-skill, high-wage jobs (33%) were at low risk, with only 19% of occupations being at moderate risk.
The implications of a potential halving of the job market are obviously colossal. In the October 2013 issue of Information Age Frey and Osborne distanced themselves from these implications, claiming that the purpose of their study was not to determine the impact of technological progress but only to identify at-risk occupations.
Having issued that caveat, Osborne then argued that the automation of one tranche of occupations would spawn a wave of new low-skill, low-wage jobs to replace them. What Osborne failed to do was apply his own analytical method to these new jobs, which would no doubt predict that, because of their low-skill, low-wage nature, they would have a high risk of computerisation.
The Information Age article petered out with fear-tinged predictions of a world where only a handful of occupations—presumably including professorships in Oxford’s Engineering Sciences Department—could not be automated.
It is fairly evident that halving the job market will create a large pool of people who are both poor and angry. They will also time on their hands to direct their anger against the wealthy. The wealthy have only two ways to respond. The first is to create an army of security guards, which in itself increases the size of the job market. But if Frey and Osborne’s predictions are accurate, that means an ever-decreasing employed elite shouldering ever-growing security costs. The second option is to pay people to do nothing. Either way, the physical and emotional toll would be immense. Whatever happens, a world where only few work is toxic to wellbeing.
And that brings us to the true purpose of technology: to improve wellbeing. We invented it so we could ultimately all do ourselves out of jobs, liberating ourselves to play all day. The Oxford study reveals that that day is far closer than anyone dared believe. To reach that technological Nirvana we will have to completely change our attitude to work—and then restructure society accordingly.