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The Future of Work

Robots Won’t Take Your Job—Just Parts Of It

Automation targets tasks first, people second. That's mostly good news for those willing to adapt.

Robots Won’t Take Your Job--Just Parts Of It

[Photo: Flickr user RoboCup2013]

"The problem with new tech is it’s really easy to imagine the jobs it will destroy," Andreessen Horowitz's Chris Dixon recently told Product Hunt, "but really hard to imagine the jobs it will create." But it isn't quite that black and white.

Many of the first "new" jobs automation will create will actually be similar to the ones it does away with. That's because, rather than destroying entire roles, it’s much more likely to chip away at certain work-related tasks. Many (though not all) positions will remain, but certain aspects of those positions will change, requiring workers to adapt to different, often higher-level activities in order to stay competitive.

That can be nerve-wracking, but it doesn’t exactly spell doom for your career. Here’s a look at three different positions and how they’ll likely evolve (quite possibly with you still in them) as automation progresses.

Automation's First Targets: Activities, Not Roles

After analyzing over 2,000 different activities within 800 occupations, McKinsey researcher Michael Chui concluded that the jobs at greatest risk of automation involve routine manual work or predictable data collection and processing. So at least for the foreseeable future, positions that require managing or developing people, applying expertise to decision making, and using emotional intelligence in interactions with the public all appear relatively safe.

Since HR managers, librarians, and retail salespeople’s jobs involve one or more of those activities, I decided to check on their expected "risk of computerization" by using this interactive feature developed by the BBC. The HR position looked to be pretty secure (32% likelihood of automation), the role of the librarian could go either way (52%), and someone in retail sales appeared to be at greatest risk (95%).

Yet according to McKinsey, technology—at least for now—will automate less than half of the more than job-related 2,000 activities that the researchers studied.

It's also worth remembering that decisions about replacing humans with robots or computer code don’t just hinge on technological feasibility. Wide-scale automation simply might not make financial sense in some businesses. There could be regulatory issues to contend with, for instance, and social acceptance to overcome—and it just might not be worth fighting those barriers.

Just because a robot someday could replace a nurse doesn’t mean patients will warm to them. On the other hand, it’s doubtful the public will worry quite as much about robot librarians, especially now that machines can find misplaced books with 99% accuracy.

And yet, in a report on the future of libraries from Arup Foresight, the consulting firm's researchers found more librarians morphing into "research mentors." This isn't just a matter of slapping an old profession with a flashy new name and praying for continued relevance. As the Association for Library Service to Children’s white paper on "media mentorship" points out, librarians not only help children develop digital literacy skills, they show them how to use the apps, ebooks, and streaming media kids are now growing up with since birth in ways that actually help them in school.

Making this leap from entertainment applications to educational uses takes training that libraries are best positioned to offer. San Francisco’s Central Library has even drawn attention for collaborating with social services to help homeless patrons "find access to information about their rights and necessary legal resources, guided by professionally trained staff," Arup notes.

Redeploying Existing Skills, Not (Just) Scrambling To Learn New Ones

Viewed in this light, what started out as librarians' roughly 50:50 survival odds doesn’t look quite as cut-and-dried—at least not for those willing to reinvent themselves by building on the skills they already use.

The same holds true in retail sales. Arup Foresight’s report on retail points to how consumer goods stores like Apple and Nike are moving away from being purely transactional places to offering multisensory experiences that engage consumers physically and emotionally. It's no longer just going in to buy a pair of sneakers and walking out—it's an immersive marketing event. This requires floor staff to become "even more knowledgeable about the products and services they sell," the researchers write. That includes helping customers complete purchases online, for instance, if necessary.

Will there come a time when robots routinely offer an opinion on whether or not that outfit flatters you? Or recommend foods that are delicious and won’t trigger off your various allergies and intolerances? Maybe—these might well prove technological breakthroughs. But since a robot is (so far) about as emotionally authentic as a psychopath—and doesn’t eat—would we necessarily want its advice over a human's? Or, put differently, will companies want to invest in acclimating us to that? The point is that those two activities—performed today by a retail associate and a nutritionist, respectively—are more likely to stay in human hands, even if some of those professionals' other tasks don't.

On the other end of the spectrum, human resources professionals may have to evolve more than they might imagine. Not only may they have to contend with automation even in the C-suite but, according to a PricewaterhouseCoopers report, there's a real risk to the HR field in being so widely "perceived by many as a passive, service-oriented function" that’s purely transactional. PricewaterhouseCoopers points to three future scenarios outlining "evolving priorities" for HR roles, including applying emerging technologies like advanced analytics to ensure the right talent for globally distributed teams is in the right place at the right time.

In short, guessing whole professions' relative likelihood of automation is a mug's game, largely because it misunderstands how automation works. There’s a greater likelihood your job will change than be suddenly automated out of existence. As technology evolves, so will the tasks required of your role—and so will you. Your future depends mainly on having the agility and willingness to adopt new skills and competencies, and that includes working successfully alongside machines, respectively doing what you do best.

Liz Alexander is a futurist and cofounder of Leading Thought, which passionately helps prepare human beings (only) for remarkable futures and collaborates with companies that want to be future-smart. Connect with Liz on LinkedIn or follow her on Twitter at @DrLizAlexander.

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