Robots Won't Steal All The Jobs -- But They'll Transform The Way We Work

This morning, WIRED published an article about my new Forrester Big Idea report, The Future of Jobs, 2025: Working Side-By-Side With Robots. You're probably familiar by now with the panic-stricken books (like Martin Ford's Rise of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of a Jobless Future) and headlines (HBR's What Happens When Robots Replace Workers?) proclaiming that the future of employment is bleak because of the rise of automation technologies. In other words, the meme goes, robots are taking all the jobs.

By "robots," we mean all forms of automation technologies, including those that conduct physical tasks, intellectual tasks, or customer service tasks (which mix elements of both physical and intellectual activities, but which constitute a distinct category in the age of the customer). Indeed, some impressive new technologies are becoming incredibly useful in a variety of organizational settings. Take, for example, Rethink Robotics' Baxter robot, seen in the video below. Unlike traditional industrial robots, it's safe for workers to be around Baxter -- and it's imperative, too. Because software engineers don't program Baxter; human colleagues simply move the robot's arm to teach it new actions, and it learns in real time.

According to the job-killer thesis, robots will displace jobs at an alarming rate; in a widely-quoted 2013 study, Oxford academics Frey and Osborne found that 47% of U.S. jobs were "at risk" of computerization. 

But there are some flaws associated with the now-common job-killer meme. Cultural anxieties about robots (as seen in the novel Robopocalypse, or the Battlestar Galatica reboot) create an atmosphere in which people readily believe the worst case scenario. But the scariest numbers have the least specific timeframes and outcomes associated with them; even Frey and Osborne write of their estimate that at-risk jobs are merely “potentially automatable" (emphasis mine) and that their timeframe is "over some unspecified number of years, perhaps a decade or two.” And aggregate economic productivity numbers don't suggest that automation is moving the needle toward human redundancy.

Instead, Forrester lays out a specific, nuanced viewpoint rooted in a huge research initiative: We forecast that 16% of jobs will disspear due to automation technologies between now and 2025, but that jobs equivalent to 9% of today's jobs will be created. Physical robots require repair and maintenance professionals -- one of several job categories that will grow up around a more automated world. That's a net loss of 7%: far fewer than most forecasts, though still a significant job loss number.

Finally, we look at job transformation: At what point in the future will any given job category be changed by the presence of automation technologies? Our analysis suggests that, by 2019, 25% of all job tasks will be offloaded to software robots, physical robots, or customer self-service automation. For most workers, robotic colleagues will change the way we approach our daily jobs, requiring new methods of job training, management, financial reporting systems, and the like.

It's a major piece of research, and one that I'd invite all clients to read. Please read and download The Future of Jobs, 2025: Working Side-By-Side With Robots.

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J. P. Gownder is a vice president and principal analyst serving Infrastructure & Operations Professionals. He covers innovation in the context of disruptive devices -- from PCs to mobile devices, augmented and virtual reality, digital signage, and, increasingly, robots. Onalytica named him one of the five most important people in the world in the area of wearable computing for 2015. Follow him on Twitter at @jgownder


AI and the Future

JP, thanks for these insights. AI, in many cases using Big Data, already solves cognitive challenges more powerfully than many humans. IBM Watson is a great case in point in healthcare as it can process many historical cases to best diagnose and recommend treatment for many patient conditions. Our human strengths of emotion/empathy, creativity and dexterity will determine the primary value we add in the future world of automation.