Why An Algorithm Wants Your Highly Skilled Job


Max Mason

 By Max Mason

Doctor.Healthcare is one sector that looks set to resist the ‘computerisation’ of traditional jobs. Photo: Virginia Star

If you think your job is safe, think again. Advances in technology mean that even highly educated workers will begin to feel the pinch of the digital revolution, with close to half of US jobs at risk of ‘computerisation’ on the next 20 years.

Machines and computer programs have always taken routine and repetitive tasks from the employment market, but increasingly sophisticated artificial intelligence could result in a new wave of job losses.

‘‘Occupations that require subtle judgement are also increasingly susceptible to computerisation,’’ write Dr Carl Frey and Dr Michael Osborne from the University of Oxford in their study The future of employment: How susceptible are jobs to computerisation?

How safe is your job? (1=certain to be lost) ... <i>Source: The Economist</i>
How safe is your job? (1=certain to be lost)

‘‘To many such tasks, the unbiased decision making of an algorithm represents a comparative advantage over human operators.’’

Dr Frey and Dr Osbourne also note the irony that algorithms, created by computer software designers, are putting IT workers out of work.

‘‘Algorithms can further automatically detect bugs in software, with a reliability that humans are unlikely to match. Big databases of code also offer the eventual prospect of algorithms that learn how to write programs to satisfy specifications provided by a human.’’

The study estimates that 47 per cent of US employment has a 70 per cent to 99 per cent chance of being computerised in the next two decades. These estimates can be similarly applied to other developed countries.

Most at risk

Of the 700 jobs analysed, telemarketers, sewers, watch repairers and library technicians are among the jobs most at risk, with a 99 per cent chance they will be computerised.

Recreational therapists, audiologists, healthcare and social workers, and dentists look to be the safest, with a less than 1 per cent chance of their jobs being computerised, the study found.

New jobs created

There is an argument to be made that as society progresses, and industries shed jobs, new and more rewarding jobs are created.

It’s an argument that got aired after Holden and Ford announced that they would end local vehicle manufacturing last year.

In Australia, the Department of Employment expects manufacturing employment will grow marginally, 1.5 per cent, between 2012 and 2017, much lower than the all-industries average of 7.1 per cent.

Employment in heath care and social assistance is, once again, expected to be the best performing, sector for employment growth, with an estimated 13 per cent increase of the same period.

But Australia’s manufacturers are just the latest in a long line of industries that have felt the brunt of technology change and globalisation. Despite an increasing population, the number of Australians employed in the manufacturing sector peaked in May 1989, at 1.2 million, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics.

Since then, jobs have slowly declined to just under 950,000, but it remains one of the country’s largest sectors.

Education shift

By and large, a shift towards higher education creates a larger high-skilled workforce who generally earn better wages.

Between 1997 and 2011, the proportion of Australians, aged 25-64, with a bachelor’s degree, or above, rose from 15.6 per cent to 27.9 per cent.

The benefits are easy to see on a population scale, but that argument ignores the individual who has been working at the same factory for the last 20 years and is unlikely to obtain gainful employment with their skills, learnt on the job, being replaced by machines.

Catch the wave late

Computers will not put humanity, as a whole, out of work, writes Nielsen Norman principal Dr Jakob Nielsen. However, for those of us at the beginning of a new wave of technology, the prospects aren’t as great.

‘‘Over the 100-year period from 1770 to 1870 factory workers got 60 per cent richer. But the entire increase happened during the second half of that period. People who were unlucky enough to have worked during the first half of the period got nothing,’’ writes Dr Nielsen.

‘‘Will history repeat itself? I am an optimist and think so. This may be little comfort to those people who’re currently living through the 50 years (or so) of flat earnings.’’

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