How to keep your job in the semi-automated workforce of the future

From the editors: A third of Canadian jobs could be done by robots right now. But thankfully some occupations will always require a human touch. Probably.

Humanoid robot for automotive assembly tasks in collaboration with people and LWR robot, using haptic teleoperation with force feedback Safety in human-robot cooperation Industry, Tecnalia Research, San Sebastian, Basque Country, Spain. (Javier Larrea/Getty Images)

A humanoid robot performs automotive assembly tasks in collaboration with humans, using haptic teleoperation with force feedback safety, Tecnalia Research, San Sebastian, Spain. (Javier Larrea/Getty Images)

What wonders of technology will the year ahead deliver? Driving a car will likely get easier and safer. Cadillac’s semi-autonomous Super Cruise technology will make its appearance with the 2018 model, while other car makers will be rolling out competing features. Digital assistant speaker systems, such as the Apple HomePod, will control your home like a disembodied butler. And expect a proliferation of selfie-enabled mini drones.

While we anticipate these exciting technologies, however, computers continue to have an equally disruptive impact on the workplace, as cashiers, security guards and financial advisers all find themselves replaced by robots or algorithms. Is any occupation safe? Unlike forecasts about next year’s tech, most predictions about computer takeovers in the job market are simply wild guesses. In a search for greater precision, the OECD, the global economic organization, recently devised an intriguing head-to-head competition between computers and humans. The results are surprising and often disconcerting. But there’s a tiny bit of hope thrown in.

MORE: Is Canada ready for the radical change artificial intelligence will unleash?

The OECD is well-known for its international testing programs comparing the performance of high school students and adults around the world. Its Survey of Adult Skills, for example, provides a measure of literacy, numeracy and problem-solving abilities across different countries, ranking subjects on levels one through five, with five being the highest. Most adults are in groups two and three; just 14 per cent of Canadians demonstrate proficiency at level four or higher. With this data in hand, the researchers then asked a panel of computer experts how computers today and a decade from now would perform if they had to answer the same questions posed to adults.

The results reveal that computers currently perform at level two in all three areas. For Canada, this means a third of all adults could see their jobs performed by computers right now. By 2026, the expert panel predicts computers will reach level three in all areas, meaning they’ll have skills equivalent to 67 per cent of Canadian adults. Matching the OECD research with other work on job classification suggests everyone from surveyors to casino dealers to dental laboratory technicians can expect their jobs to be under threat from computers in the near future. It seems a daunting prospect.

The OECD’s research further implies these changes are largely unstoppable, as educational gains can’t keep pace with improvements in computer technology. While younger Canadians show a higher level of proficiency than older adults, this advantage is relatively small. Only the very smartest of us can expect to outperform our electronic peers over the long run. “It is unlikely there will be strong demand for human workers except for those who have relatively high proficiency levels,” the report grimly predicts.

There are, however, a few hopeful signs. Some of the easiest questions for humans proved the most difficult for electronic brains. For example, estimating the number of water bottles in a picture where not all bottles are visible is beyond the capability of current-day computers; interpreting visual evidence thus remains a human specialty. Jobs requiring skills outside literacy, numeracy and problem-solving—such as empathy—will also likely find themselves insulated from robotic predation. This includes nursing, along with other health care and therapeutic pursuits. The same goes for the dark arts of persuasion and negotiation, suggesting public relations officers and lawyers may also be safe, at least for a while.

MORE: Big law is having its Uber moment

What does all this mean for the future of education and work? As the OECD report points out, many of the skills that differentiate humans from computers, including creativity, caring and social intelligence, are largely developed outside the formal education system. So perhaps a major rethink of the purpose of schools is in order. If we cannot hope to outmatch computers in most tasks performed by humans today, we may need to start training future generations of humans to do the jobs that computers cannot.


Looking for more?

Get the Best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.