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Will machines replace us all? The end of human work can wait

We all know the story, it’s something we’ve heard pretty often in the last couple of years – robots are taking over, machines will be the new workforce, humans will have to find something else to do. But is that quite the case?

Although it is true that robots and AI-based technologies are having a huge impact in certain sectors, such as deliveries and customer care to name a few, it is safe to assume that machines are not actually going to definitively take over most of our jobs in twenty years from now.

Various media outlets, or even tech executives in some cases, have pushed this narrative quite far in recent times. Examples can be found not only on the BBC, but also on The Guardian, on blogs, and of course on less prominent sources too. It seems that humanity is actually faced with an industrial revolution that will pose a serious threat to the structure of society and its institutions as we know them. If medical experts, writers, lawyers, accountants, front-desk bank operators can be replaced by machines, then let’s not even think about what could happen to factory employees, the unskilled workers, or the lower strata of the income distribution.

Let’s put the catastrophism aside and look at the data – a good exercise sometimes way too easily forgotten. According to authors Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael A. Osborne and their 2013 report, relative to the US context, about 47% of the States’ total employment is at risk due to automation. And it seems accurate if we look at occupations. Concerned much? You can check how likely is your job to be replaced by robots, just by typing your occupation and seeing the score it gets. But indeed, occupation is the magic word.

The authors are addressing a phenomenon called occupational change. It happened in the past, it’s happening now, it will happen in the future. For those not familiar with the debate, occupational change is related to the process of disappearance, creation, and transformation of jobs in the labour market – determinants, external collateral factors, dynamics. If we decide to stick with the analysis provided by Frey and Osborne, in about twenty years we will be ready to pack our stuff and dedicate ourselves to a life of otium, while only a few people will be able to keep their office duties safe from the revolution of work. And though technological advancements are not the only factor impacting the structure of our labour markets, the significance of such changes remains undeniable.

But what gives us hope, and why we can assume that that’s not what is going to happen? First of all, let’s shift the focus from occupations as a whole to a smaller unit of analysis – tasks. A recent study by Katharina Dengler and Britta Matthes published on Technological Forecasting and Social Change (2018) shows how the numbers are not wrong, and if we take into account entire occupations, about 47% of the workforce in Germany (country of reference for the study) in 2013 is engaged in jobs with high automation replacement rates. However, if we assume that only certain tasks can be substituted, 15% of the employees are at risk. Fun fact: occupations concerned with the production of technology, with business management, and with the IT sector, appear to be in the top 5 categories with the highest likelihood of being replaced by machines.

Percentage of substitution potentials by occupational segments in Germany, 2013. Source: Dengler and Matthes (2018)

Percentage of substitution potentials by occupational segments in Germany, 2013. Source: Dengler and Matthes (2018)

In order to understand how technological change will trigger jobs transformation, and what we can do to limit the shortcomings of such disruption, we spoke to Luís Ortiz Gervasi, Associate Professor at Pompeu Fabra University in Barcelona (Catalonia, Spain) and expert in the field of labour market studies and employment policies. In Europe, we will witness an unevenly polarized occupational change, “where growth is going to be steeper in the upper part of the job quality distribution, with the best occupations paying off more, while the worst ones are going to grow as well and much more than the middle ones”, Ortiz says.

“It’s not only about technology, as if politics do not count at all, but that is one of the factors that can make income inequality increase more acutely”, Ortiz warns, with the result of fostering conflicts already present in the society between locals and migrants, or the losers and winners of globalization. Institutions and policies, then, will likely have the responsibility to compensate for the inequalities that partly will be generated by technological change.

In a recent interview on e-Estonia, Rene Tammist, the Estonian Minister of Entrepreneurship and Information Technology, posed the attention on how we should focus on the development of work-related digital skills, but also vocational education and academic studies. The nature of the Estonian labour market still presents a high demand for ICT specialists and highly trained workers, but skills remains a keyword of extreme importance, as also highlighted by a piece on Politico.eu.

Aside from specialization in ICT, what are the skills of the future in line with the forecasts and that will shelter workers from being replaced by machines? “Creative skills, social skills, et similia. But it’s not only a matter of skills, as much as of an effort to rethink tasks: we should focus on developing tasks within occupations, trying to adopt a human resource management approach, and designing jobs in a way that can make technological elements compatible with human capital development”, Ortiz states. Among the tools and policies that can make it work, “vocational training is an institution that is quite salient, in particular, durable vocational training. Then welfare measures, and Active Labour Market Policies (ALMP) to improve the employability of the labour force that we feel could be insufficiently trained once it is already in the labour market”, Ortiz concludes.

 

Everything’s not lost. It’s not that we need a message of encouragement, but it is somewhat comforting to know that the end of work is not as close as we may think. David Autor, Professor and Economist at MIT (US), puts it very clearly: “Automating some subsets of those tasks [within occupations] does not make the other ones unnecessary, it makes them more important, and it increases their economic value”, he states. We stand by that, valuing technological innovation and valuing people, together. The way work will look like in the future is not determined by an unforeseeable divine will, but by the direction we want to give to growth and development in society.

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