Are workplace robots coming for your job?

WASHINGTON - Although technology has long affected the labour force, recent advances in artificial intelligence and robotics are heightening concerns about automation replacing a growing number of occupations, including highly skilled or "knowledge-based" jobs.

Just a few examples: self-driving technology may eliminate the need for taxi, Uber and truck drivers; algorithms are playing a growing role in journalism; robots are informing consumers as mall greeters; and medicine is adapting robotic surgery and artificial intelligence to detect cancer and heart conditions.

Of 700 occupations in the United States, 47 per cent are at "high risk" from automation, an Oxford University study concluded in 2013.

A McKinsey study released this year offered a similar view, saying "about half" of activities in the world's workforce "could potentially be automated by adapting currently demonstrated technologies."

Still, McKinsey researchers offered a caveat, saying that only around 5 per cent of jobs can be "fully automated."

Another report by PwC this month concluded that around a third of jobs in the United States, Germany and Britain could be eliminated by automation by the early 2030s, with the losses concentrated in transportation and storage, manufacturing, and wholesale and retail trade.

Still, experts warn that such studies may fail to grasp the full extent of the risks to the working population.

"The studies are underestimating the impact of technology-some 80-90 per cent of jobs will be eliminated in the next 10 to 15 years," said Vivek Wadhwa, a tech entrepreneur and faculty member at Carnegie Mellon University in Silicon Valley.

"Artificial intelligence (AI) is moving a lot faster than anyone had expected," said Wadhwa, who is a coauthor of a forthcoming book on the topic.

"Alexa (Amazon's home hub) and Google Home are getting amazingly intelligent very fast. Microsoft and Google have demonstrated that AI can understand human speech better than humans can," he added.

According to Wadhwa, the driverless car is a "metaphor" for the future of labour and a sign of a major shift.

Dire consequences

Warnings of dire social consequences from automation have also come from the likes of the physicist Stephen Hawking and tech entrepreneur Elon Musk, among others.

A historian of Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Yuval Harari writes in his 2017 book, "Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow," that technology will lead to "superfluous people" as "intelligent nonconscious algorithms" improve.

"As algorithms push humans out of the job market," Harari writes, "wealth and power might become concentrated in the hands of the tiny elite that owns the all-powerful algorithms, creating unprecedented social and political inequality."

He points to the Oxford study, estimating a high probability of job loss to automation-cashiers (97 per cent), paralegals (94 per cent), bakers (89 per cent) and bartenders (77 per cent), for example.

Former US President Barack Obama's council of economic advisers also warned last year that most jobs paying less than $20 an hour "would come under pressure from automation."

Bessen said reversing the trends of the past decades, where high-skilled jobs gained at the expense of others, posed a big challenge.

"It's entirely possible we can meet the challenge," he said.

"But the evidence in the past 20 years is that things are moving in the wrong direction."