AI May Soon Replace Even the Most Elite Consultants

August 06, 2017

Amazon’s Alexa just got a new job. In addition to her other 15,000 skills like playing music and telling knock-knock jokes, she can now also answer economic questions for clients of the Swiss global financial services company, UBS Group AG.

According to the Wall Street Journal (WSJ), a new partnership between UBS Wealth Management and Amazon allows some of UBS’s European wealth-management clients to ask Alexa certain financial and economic questions. Alexa will then answer their queries with the information provided by UBS’s chief investment office without even having to pick up the phone or visit a website. And this is likely just Alexa’s first step into offering business services. Soon she will probably be booking appointments, analyzing markets, maybe even buying and selling stocks. While the financial services industry has already begun the shift from active management to passive management, artificial intelligence will move the market even further, to management by smart machines, as in the case of Blackrock, which is rolling computer-driven algorithms and models into more traditional actively-managed funds.

But the financial services industry is just the beginning. Over the next few years, artificial intelligence may exponentially change the way we all gather information, make decisions, and connect with stakeholders. Hopefully this will be for the better and we will all benefit from timely, comprehensive, and bias-free insights (given research that human beings are prone to a variety of cognitive biases). It will be particularly interesting to see how artificial intelligence affects the decisions of corporate leaders — men and women who make the many decisions that affect our everyday lives as customers, employees, partners, and investors.

Already, leaders are starting to use artificial intelligence to automate mundane tasks such as calendar maintenance and making phone calls. But AI can also help support more complex decisions in key areas such as human resources, budgeting, marketing, capital allocation and even corporate strategy — long the bastion of bespoke consulting firms such as McKinsey, Bain, and BCG, and the major marketing agencies.

The shift to AI solutions will be a tough pill to swallow for the corporate consulting industry. According to recent research, the U.S. market for corporate advice alone is nearly $60 billion.  Almost all that advice is high cost and human-based.

One might argue that corporate clients prefer speaking to their strategy consultants to get high priced, custom-tailored advice that is based on small teams doing expensive and time-consuming work. And we agree that consultants provide insightful advice and guidance. However, a great deal of what is paid for with consulting services is data analysis and presentation. Consultants gather, clean, process, and interpret data from disparate parts of organizations. They are very good at this, but AI is even better. For example, the processing power of four smart consultants with excel spreadsheets is miniscule in comparison to a single smart computer using AI running for an hour, based on continuous, non-stop machine learning.

In today’s big data world, AI and machine learning applications already analyze massive amounts of structured and unstructured data and produce insights in a fraction of the time and at a fraction of the cost of consultants in the financial markets. Moreover, machine learning algorithms are capable of building computer models that make sense of complex phenomena by detecting patterns and inferring rules from data — a process that is very difficult for even the largest and smartest consulting teams. Perhaps sooner than we think, CEOs could be asking, “Alexa, what is my product line profitability?” or “Which customers should I target, and how?” rather than calling on elite consultants.

Another area in which leaders will soon be relying on AI is in managing their human capital. Despite the best efforts of many, mentorship, promotion, and compensation decisions are undeniably political. Study after study has shown that deep biases affect how groups like women and minorities are managed. For example, women in business are described in less positive terms than men  and receive less helpful feedback. Minorities are less likely to be hired and are more likely to face bias from their managers. These inaccuracies and imbalances in the system only hurt organizations as leaders are less able to nurture the talent of their entire workforce and to appropriately recognize and reward performance. Artificial intelligence can help bring impartiality to these difficult decisions. For example, AI could determine if one group of employees is assessed, managed, or compensated differently.  Just imagine: “Alexa, does my organization have a gender pay gap?” (Of course, AI can only be as unbiased as the data provided to the system.)

In addition, AI is already helping in the customer engagement and marketing arena. It’s clear and well documented by the AI patent activities of the big five platforms — Apple, Alphabet, Amazon, Facebook and Microsoft — that they are using it to market and sell goods and services to us. But they are not alone. Recently, HBR documented how Harley-Davidson was using AI to determine what was working and what wasn’t working across various marketing channels. They used this new skill to make resource allocation decisions to different marketing choices, thereby “eliminating guesswork.”  It is only a matter of time until they and others ask, “Alexa, where should I spend my marketing budget?’’ to avoid the age-old adage, “I know that half my marketing budget is effective, my only question is — which half?”

AI can also bring value to the budgeting and yearly capital allocation process. Even though markets change dramatically every year, products become obsolete and technology advances, and most businesses allocate their capital the same way year after year. Whether that’s due to inertia, unconscious bias, or error, some business units rake in investments while others starve.  Even when the management team has committed to a new digital initiative, it usually ends up with the scraps after the declining cash cows are “fed.” Artificial intelligence can help break through this budgeting black hole by tracking the return on investments by business unit, or by measuring how much is allocated to growing versus declining product lines. Business leaders may soon be asking, “Alexa, what percentage of my budget is allocated differently from last year?” and more complex questions.

Although many strategic leaders tout their keen intuition, hard work, and years of industry experience, much of this intuition is simply a deeper understanding of data that was historically difficult to gather and expensive to process. Not any longer. Artificial intelligence is rapidly closing this gap, and will soon be able to help human beings push past our processing capabilities and biases. These developments will change many jobs, for example, those of consultants, lawyers, and accountants, whose roles will evolve from analysis to judgement. Arguably, tomorrow’s elite consultants already sit on your wrist (Siri), on your kitchen counter (Alexa), or in your living room (Google Home).

The bottom line: corporate leaders, knowingly or not, are on the cusp of a major disruption in their sources of advice and information. “Quant Consultants” and “Robo Advisers” will offer faster, better, and more profound insights at a fraction of the cost and time of today’s consulting firms and other specialized workers. It is likely only a matter of time until all leaders and management teams can ask Alexa things like, “Who is the biggest risk to me in our key market?”, “How should we allocate our capital to compete with Amazon?” or “How should I restructure my board?”

Barry Libert is a board member and CEO adviser focused on platforms and networks. He is chairman of Open Matters, a machine learning company. He is also the coauthor of The Network Imperative: How to Survive and Grow in the Age of Digital Business Models.

Megan Beck is a digital consultant at OpenMatters and researcher at the SEI Center at Wharton. She is the coauthor of The Network Imperative: How to Survive and Grow in the Age of Digital Business Models.

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Bill Gates talks about why artificial intelligence is nearly here and how to solve two big problems it creates

July 10, 2016


Bill Gates is excited about the rise of artificial intelligence but acknowledged the arrival of machines with greater-than-human capabilities will create some unique challenges.

After years of working on the building blocks of speech recognition and computer vision, Gates said enough progress has been made to ensure that in the next 10 years there will be robots to do tasks like driving and warehouse work as well as machines that can outpace humans in certain areas of knowledge.

“The dream is finally arriving,” Gates said, speaking with wife Melinda Gates on Wednesday at the Code Conference. “This is what it was all leading up to.”

However, as he said in an interview with Recode last year, such machine capabilities will pose two big problems.

The first is, it will eliminate a lot of existing types of jobs. Gates said that creates a need for a lot of retraining but notes that until schools have class sizes under 10 and people can retire at a reasonable age and take ample vacation, he isn’t worried about a lack of need for human labor.

The second issue is, of course, making sure humans remain in control of the machines. Gates has talked about that in the past, saying that he plans to spend time with people who have ideas on how to address that issue, noting work being done at Stanford, among other places.

And, in Gatesian fashion, he suggested a pair of books that people should read, including Nick Bostrom’s book on superintelligence and Pedro Domingos’ “The Master Algorithm.”

Melinda Gates noted that you can tell a lot about where her husband’s interest is by the books he has been reading. “There have been a lot of AI books,” she said.

Artificial intelligence: ‘Homo sapiens will be split into a handful of gods and the rest of us’

November 8, 2015


If you wanted relief from stories about tyre factories and steel plants closing, you could try relaxing with a new 300-page report from Bank of America Merrill Lynch which looks at the likely effects of a robot revolution.

But you might not end up reassured. Though it promises robot carers for an ageing population, it also forecasts huge numbers of jobs being wiped out: up to 35% of all workers in the UK and 47% of those in the US, including white-collar jobs, seeing their livelihoods taken away by machines.

Haven’t we heard all this before, though? From the luddites of the 19th century to print unions protesting in the 1980s about computers, there have always been people fearful about the march of mechanisation. And yet we keep on creating new job categories.

However, there are still concerns that the combination of artificial intelligence (AI) – which is able to make logical inferences about its surroundings and experience – married to ever-improving robotics, will wipe away entire swaths of work and radically reshape society.

“The poster child for automation is agriculture,” says Calum Chace, author of Surviving AI and the novel Pandora’s Brain. “In 1900, 40% of the US labour force worked in agriculture. By 1960, the figure was a few per cent. And yet people had jobs; the nature of the jobs had changed.

“But then again, there were 21 million horses in the US in 1900. By 1960, there were just three million. The difference was that humans have cognitive skills – we could learn to do new things. But that might not always be the case as machines get smarter and smarter.”

What if we’re the horses to AI’s humans? To those who don’t watch the industry closely, it’s hard to see how quickly the combination of robotics and artificial intelligence is advancing. Last week a team from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology released a video showing a tiny drone flying through a lightly forested area at 30mph, avoiding the trees – all without a pilot, using only its onboard processors. Of course it can outrun a human-piloted one.

MIT has also built a “robot cheetah” which can jump over obstacles of up to 40cm without help. Add to that the standard progress of computing, where processing power doubles roughly every 18 months (or, equally, prices for capability halve), and you can see why people like Chace are getting worried.

Drone flies autonomously through a forested area


But the incursion of AI into our daily life won’t begin with robot cheetahs. In fact, it began long ago; the edge is thin, but the wedge is long. Cooking systems with vision processors can decide whether burgers are properly cooked. Restaurants can give customers access to tablets with the menu and let people choose without needing service staff.

Lawyers who used to slog through giant files for the “discovery” phase of a trial can turn it over to a computer. An “intelligent assistant” called Amy will, via email, set up meetings autonomously. Google announced last week that you can get Gmail to write appropriate responses to incoming emails. (You still have to act on your responses, of course.)

Further afield, Foxconn, the Taiwanese company which assembles devices for Apple and others, aims to replace much of its workforce with automated systems. The AP news agency gets news stories written automatically about sports and business by a system developed by Automated Insights. The longer you look, the more you find computers displacing simple work. And the harder it becomes to find jobs for everyone.

So how much impact will robotics and AI have on jobs, and on society? Carl Benedikt Frey, who with Michael Osborne in 2013 published the seminal paper The Future of Employment: How Susceptible Are Jobs to Computerisation? – on which the BoA report draws heavily – says that he doesn’t like to be labelled a “doomsday predictor”.

He points out that even while some jobs are replaced, new ones spring up that focus more on services and interaction with and between people. “The fastest-growing occupations in the past five years are all related to services,” he tells the Observer. “The two biggest are Zumba instructor and personal trainer.”

Frey observes that technology is leading to a rarification of leading-edge employment, where fewer and fewer people have the necessary skills to work in the frontline of its advances. “In the 1980s, 8.2% of the US workforce were employed in new technologies introduced in that decade,” he notes. “By the 1990s, it was 4.2%. For the 2000s, our estimate is that it’s just 0.5%. That tells me that, on the one hand, the potential for automation is expanding – but also that technology doesn’t create that many new jobs now compared to the past.”

This worries Chace. “There will be people who own the AI, and therefore own everything else,” he says. “Which means homo sapiens will be split into a handful of ‘gods’, and then the rest of us.

“I think our best hope going forward is figuring out how to live in an economy of radical abundance, where machines do all the work, and we basically play.”

Arguably, we might be part of the way there already; is a dance fitness programme like Zumba anything more than adult play? But, as Chace says, a workless lifestyle also means “you have to think about a universal income” – a basic, unconditional level of state support.

Perhaps the biggest problem is that there has been so little examination of the social effects of AI. Frey and Osborne are contributing to Oxford University’s programme on the future impacts of technology; at Cambridge, Observer columnist John Naughton and David Runciman are leading a project to map the social impacts of such change. But technology moves fast; it’s hard enough figuring out what happened in the past, let alone what the future will bring.

But some jobs probably won’t be vulnerable. Does Frey, now 31, think that he will still have a job in 20 years’ time? There’s a brief laugh. “Yes.” Academia, at least, looks safe for now – at least in the view of the academics.

Foxconn sign
Smartphone manufacturer Foxconn is aiming to automate much of its production facility. Photograph: Pichi Chuang/Reuters

The danger of change is not destitution, but inequality

Productivity is the secret ingredient in economic growth. In the late 18th century, the cleric and scholar Thomas Malthus notoriously predicted that a rapidly rising human population would result in misery and starvation.

But Malthus failed to anticipate the drastic technological changes – from the steam-powered loom to the combine harvester – that would allow the production of food and the other necessities of life to expand even more rapidly than the number of hungry mouths. The key to economic progress is this ability to do more with the same investment of capital and labour.

The latest round of rapid innovation, driven by the advance of robots and AI, is likely to power continued improvements.

Recent research led by Guy Michaels at the London School of Economics looked at detailed data across 14 industries and 17 countries over more than a decade, and found that the adoption of robots boosted productivity and wages without significantly undermining jobs.

Robotisation has reduced the number of working hours needed to make things; but at the same time as workers have been laid off from production lines, new jobs have been created elsewhere, many of them more creative and less dirty. So far, fears of mass layoffs as the machines take over have proven almost as unfounded as those that have always accompanied other great technological leaps forward.

There is an important caveat to this reassuring picture, however. The relatively low-skilled factory workers who have been displaced by robots are rarely the same people who land up as app developers or analysts, and technological progress is already being blamed for exacerbating inequality, a trend Bank of America Merrill Lynch believes may continue in future.

So the rise of the machines may generate huge economic benefits; but unless it is carefully managed, those gains may be captured by shareholders and highly educated knowledge workers, exacerbating inequality and leaving some groups out in the cold. Heather Stewart

The Top Jobs In 10 Years Might Not Be What You Expect

May 16, 2015


We talked to three futurists to find out what the hot jobs of 2025 could be, and their answers may surprise you.

For decades, the U.S. Bureau of Labor’s Economic and Employment Projections have been the bellwether for predicting what the hottest jobs up to a decade out would be. But with the rapid pace of technological change disrupting industries faster than ever before (think: robotics, 3-D printing, the sharing economy), it’s becoming obvious to many futurists that past trends may no longer be a reliable indicator of future job prospects.

“In the last two centuries, we’ve seen two significant shifts in the global labor market,” says Graeme Codrington, futurist at TomorrowToday Global. “First we stripped the agricultural sector of workers, and then we did the same to manufacturing. Now the machines are coming for the tertiary sector, and will begin to strip companies of their white-collar workers in the next decade.”

What that means, says Codrington, is that some of the hottest jobs of today could be obsolete by 2025 (check out the sidebar to see if yours is on the chopping block). Yet all hope isn’t lost, he says. “History tells us that somehow the labor market creates new jobs whenever it destroys some old ones. While it’s easy to see how the overall job market could contract significantly, and certainly many jobs that exist today will not exist in a decade or two, it’s also quite easy to see myriad new jobs being created.”

So just what are the jobs that will be in demand in this brave new world only a decade away? Codrington and two other futurists give us their predictions.

Personal Worker Brand Coaches And Managers

“At TomorrowToday, we’re predicting that nearly 25% of today’s full-time employees will be working ‘on demand,’” says Codrington, referring to the increasing preference of companies to hire freelancers for short contracts when the need arises instead of keeping people on staff.

Currently the on-demand economy is popular in the creative fields or for the odd personal-services job, but Codrington notes that almost any job that can be done at a digital distance will be attractive for companies to opt for freelancers over staff, even when looking to hire “top-end professionals who can solve significant problems for companies.”

The demand for these “on demand” workers will result in an increased need for individuals to brand themselves to set them apart from the competition. To do so, they will need a new set of skills related to “self-management, self-promotion, relentless marketing, administration, and self-development,” says Codrington—anyone who can teach this on-demand workforce these skills will be in great demand themselves.

Professional Triber

Related to Codrington’s personal worker brand coaches and managers will be the role of what he calls the “professional triber,” says Joe Tankersley, a futurist and strategic designer at Unique Visions. Tankersley says that as more companies rely on on-demand workers, the role of a professional triber—a freelance professional manager that specializes in putting teams together for very specific projects—will be in demand.

The professional triber is “the Hollywood model dispersed across the general workplace,” says Tankersley. Just as Hollywood studios don’t themselves hire the individual cinematographer, editor, scriptwriters, and actors to make a movie, neither will companies of the future want to hire individual components of a team to get a job done.

Instead, they’ll turn to the professional triber, or director, to let them assemble the team they think is most appropriate to complete the project. Companies, just as Hollywood studios do with directors, will keep working with the same triber, provided his varying teams keep producing hits.

Freelance Professors

Tankersley also believes that by 2025, there will be a large need for freelance professors as teaching moves into the on-demand realm. “The continued growth of online courses and the introduction of alternative accreditations will spawn a growth in freelance or independent professors. By 2025 all you need to start your own university is a great online teaching style, course materials, and marketing plan.”

Urban Farmers

Though technology continues to move the world into the virtual space, the 21st century may see the return of local farming due to the number of people living in urban areas and the increasing awareness of the detrimental environmental impacts of industrial farming.

“Small artisan farmers will continue to grow in numbers as urban farming becomes a small but significant part of the food chain,” says Tankersley, who believes that individuals and companies will spring up to teach and assist amateur urban farmers lead a healthier and more eco-conscious life.

End-Of-Life Planner

By the year 2100, the planet is predicted to have another 4 billion inhabitants, yet well before then, the average age of a person living here will also increase. By 2025, the World Health Organization predicts that 63% of the global population will live to over the age of 65—some well past their centenary. As the average age continues to get older, Tankersley says end-of-life planning will become a hot job sector by 2025.”As boomers grow older, they will reshape the last phase of life as they have every other phase. We can expect to see a major push to redefine end of life. New ‘business’ opportunities will range from life memorial planners as funerals become more elaborate than weddings, and even euthanasia guides as more boomers opt to decide when life ends.”

Senior Carer

The aging population will seriously start affecting world economies in the next decade, agrees Codrington, and a workforce built around caring for the aging population will be one of the hottest sectors of the economy, with demand for employees well outstripping the supply of workers trained in the field.

“My mother is one of many women in their 50s and 60s, many divorced or widowed, who are being recruited across the EU and UK to spend a few months a year looking after the elderly in those countries. Life expectancy is increasing by about 1.5 days a week at the moment, and more than half of all the people who have ever turned 80 are still alive.

In countries with socialized health care, the government provides personal care for these people, and is going to need more and more carers in the next few decades. By 2025, what is today mainly physical care will have extended to psychological care as well.”

Remote Health Care Specialist

Unsurprisingly, not only will the world need more carers in 2025, but there will be a need for people who can be remote health care specialists to offload some of the work of local or regional health care specialists who need to commit their time to caring for patients with more urgent diseases.

“This is a fairly new hot job in 2015, but will continue to grow and develop,” says Codrington. “It encompasses a range of health care professionals who either design devices and systems that can proactively track health issues and/or are involved in remote or virtual health care relationships with patients.”

Interestingly, Codrington believes that by 2025, the highest-paying jobs in this field will all be held by Apple employees. “There is no doubt that with their iOS 8 released Health app and their integration of myriad health apps with the Apple Watch, Apple are making a play in this space, and by 2025 are likely to be the world’s leading remote and proactive health care company.”

Neuro-Implant Technicians

It may sound like science fiction, but advances in neurotechnology are set to explode in the next decade. Luke Skywalker’s robotic hand, digital telepathy, and even downloading your mind to a computer, could soon come to be. All this means neuro-implant technology will be a hot growing career field.

“Our knowledge of the brain is developing faster than almost any scientific field at the moment, and by 2025 our ability to understand the brain will be exponentially improved from today,” says Codrington. “We will need a vast range of disciplines to be focused on neurosciences, including brain surgeons, neuro-augmentation and implant technicians and developers, brain backup engineers, real-time MRI scanners and interpreters, and neuro-robotic engineers to build mind-controlled robots and machines.”

Smart-Home Handyperson

Moving away from the health sector, Codrington says the burgeoning Internet of Things industry, which is expected to be a $19 trillion market by 2020, will create a number of new jobs not just for engineers, but for technically adept handymen and women. Specifically, Codrington believes there will be a huge market for smart-home installers.

“Aluminum siding salesmen were followed by the double glazers, the air conditioners, the gasmen, and a whole host of others, going door to door over the past half century helping ordinary people improve their homes,” he says. “It might not be door to door anymore, but there is going to be plenty of work for those who can bring various aspects of the Internet of Things into our homes in the next few decades.”

Virtual Reality Experience Designer

Part of the expansion of the Internet of Things into our homes will involve the increasing use of virtual reality for both work and play. Offices could become obsolete if you can just log in virtually from your home office and interact with your colleagues as if you were in the same room. And when it comes to virtual reality for home entertainment, well, that 72-inch television and PS4 are going to look positively archaic in 2025. Virtual reality will be as much a part of our lives as the Internet and our iPhones are today—and that means people who can design the best VR experiences will be in huge demand.

“In every part of our lives, virtual reality—using much more advanced systems than Oculus Rift or MS HoloLens—will have become everyday by 2025,” says Codrington. “We will need VR experience designers in every part of our lives to design and implement virtual reality experiences for us. From training and conference experiences in the workplace, to global tourism and fantasy running trails for our leisure, to even virtual relationships like the OS in the movie Her, virtual reality will need directors, actors, developers, and designers to make virtual reality very real for us.”

John Danaher, a lecturer at NUI Galway’s School of Law and an expert in the philosophy of law and emerging technologies, agrees. “With the growth of virtual reality software and hardware, I think there will be a niche for people who can design special experiences for people in virtual reality environments,” says Danaher. Why virtual reality experiences in particular and not real-world ones? Well, because “virtual reality will provide more opportunities for creative thinkers.”

Sex Worker Coach

Danaher also believes that an increasingly hot job in the future may actually be one of the oldest professions on the planet: sex work.

“Erotic labor may be a niche area for humans in the future,” says Danaher, who has written at length about technological unemployment and sex work. Danaher is one of the many futurists who believe that robots and software will increasingly put the population out of work as the century progresses. After all, robots don’t need breaks, don’t get sick, and can generally do things better and faster than humans already. Yet one area where humans currently excel over robots is sex—which is a good thing, considering many people may be turning to sex work to support themselves since a lot of today’s jobs might be redundant by then.

“I think, given the choice, most humans will prefer to have sex with another human rather than a machine. This could have interesting consequences for the sex work industry, which has always existed, be it legal or otherwise,” says Danaher. “Increased automation in other industries will drive humans toward niche areas in which they have an advantage over machines. Sex work could be one of those areas.”

But Danaher says even in sex work, there will be robots and virtual reality devices that offer some possibility for sexual gratification too. That’s why he feels there will be a need for sex worker coaches to train sex workers to compete with their digital counterparts. “This will increase the market for people who can train humans to be effective sex workers,” he says, and also notes that he believes the threat of technological unemployment will lead to further legalization of sex work around the world.

3-D Printer Design Specialist

3-D printers have been a boon to the manufacturing and prototyping industries for years, yet the large majority of the consumer population seem to have little interest in learning to use them. Danaher doesn’t believe this apathy from the general public will dissipate by 2025, but he does believe an increasing number of people will come to appreciate the advantages of 3-D printing, which means they’ll hire people to design and print their objects for them.

“I’m not sure that these people will make much money, given that the designs will be easily copied and shared, but there may be a premium at the high end of the market,” says Danaher. “The rich will pay their own designers to create bespoke products for them. Just as companies already hire specialist designers, imagine having your own personal Jony Ive to design your 3-D-printed furniture.”

When Robots Take Over Most Jobs, What Will Be the Purpose of Humans?

September 6, 2014


In March of 2013, four economics researchers from the New York Federal Reserve published a report on job “polarization” — the phenomenon of routine task work disappearing and only the highest and lowest skilled work still available. The authors stated:

An occupation is routine if its main tasks require following explicit instructions and obeying well-defined rules. These tend to be middle-skilled jobs. If the job involves flexibility, problem solving or creativity, it’s considered nonroutine. Job polarization occurs when employment moves to nonroutine occupations, a category that contains the highest- and lowest-skilled jobs.

They based their analysis on data from the U.S. Census Bureau, which demonstrates that around 2005, the U.S. passed a threshold where more than 50 percent of all occupations are non-routine. In fact, extrapolating from the relatively straight line on the graph, at this point we should be over 60 percent nonroutine.

chart 1

These researchers also broke out the four quadrants of the work sphere, with routine versus nonroutine work arrayed against cognitive versus manual work.

routine nonroutine

The central takeaway from this exposition is that routine jobs have been decreasing in both cognitive and manual forms, and nonroutine jobs have been increasing largely in cognitive form. Again, here’s the census data:

chart 3

The indications are fairly stark. The work in routine occupations is trending toward zero. This fall lines up fairly well with the rise of automation of various kinds. For example, computer programs are doing the work of paralegals and x-ray technicians, and factory robots are displacing large numbers of automobile assembly line workers. There are applications that can write sports newspaper articles, based simply on the scoring history in the game.

Of course, for those who consider science fiction as the best oracle for an unknowable future, consider this shot in the dark from Isaac Asimov, who wrote in 1964 about a visit to the World’s Fair of 2014:

The world of A.D. 2014 will have few routine jobs that cannot be done better by some machine than by any human being. Mankind will therefore have become largely a race of machine tenders.

Soon, all that will be left for human beings will be the non-routine, creative work. How many of our occupations will our software overlords steal away from us? Many more than today, according to Carl Benedict Frey and Michael A. Osborne, two researchers at Oxford who looked at 702 current occupations.

“Soon, all that will be left for human beings will be the non-routine, creative work.”

The researchers found that approximately half of current occupations (47 percent) are at risk of going the way of the telephone operator within just a decade or two. These two researchers relied on the same matrix of work as the Federal Reserve team, and examined how quickly robotic dexterity and A.I. cognition would hollow out jobs that seem to be the preserve of humans today:

Our findings could be interpreted as two waves of computerisation, separated by a “technological plateau”. In the first wave, we find that most workers in transportation and logistics occupations, together with the bulk of office and administrative support workers, and labour in production occupations, are likely to be substituted by computer capital.

Note that the “transportation and logistics” sector includes many occupations that will be slammed by autonomous vehicles, like truckers (the number one occupation for men in the U.S. currently), taxi drivers and warehouse workers. Administrative support is the number one job for women in the US, so our robot overlords are equal opportunity, at least.

Frey and Osborne suggest that the second future wave of displacement will come at some later date, when A.I. gains the secrets of creativity and social intelligence. That may take a longer time, but at some future date, lawyers, engineers, brain surgeons and even actors might be displaced by ‘bots. In fact, one venture capital firm, Deep Knowledge Ventures, has already appointed an algorithm to its board of directors.

“Lawyers, engineers, brain surgeons and even actors might be displaced by ‘bots.”

So, we are confronted with the critical question of 2025, as I stated in the recent Pew Internet report, AI, Robotics, and the Future of Jobs:

What are people for in a world that does not need their labor, and where only a minority are needed to guide the ‘bot-based economy?

While it is likely that for the next few decades the educated, creative and inventive will find avenues to gainful employment, that will not be the case for all. How will we organize our world if machines can provide goods and services at lower and lower costs while fewer and fewer have income enough to buy anything?

Can we educate our way out of this mess, or will people be forced into a return to the land, tending 40 acres with the help of several mechanical mules? Can we legislate a Luddite future, where the new levels of automation are made illegal? Or will the techno utopians be vindicated by new sorts of work — as yet unseen — emerge to engage the surplus workers now being displaced?

The end state is uncertain, but we are headed toward a disruption of our society on the same order of magnitude as the rise of agriculture and industrialism, but in a much more compressed time frame: decades, not generations or centuries. And that question — what are people for? — will taunt us because it’s unclear if there is an answer or whether it is just an irresolvable dilemma.