Is your job at risk of computerisation? How to avoid bad surprise

By Valentina Magri  

 “Computers double their speed and memory capacity every 18 months. The risk is that computers develop intelligence and take over. Humans, who are limited by slow biological evolution, couldn’t compete, and would be superseded”.

Stephen Hawking’s prediction of the future of the human race has rattled a few people. The physicist, who has motor neurone disease and uses a system designed by Intel to speak, essentially grounded sci-fi prophecies of robots out-thinking humans that have been banded around in various works of fiction for years.

There’s no doubt that computerisation of jobs is becoming increasingly common in the UK. The health secretary Jeremy Hunt explained last month at the King’s Fund think-tank: “Give that much innovation saves money as well as lives, we need to change the NHS from a lumberingly slow adapter of new technology to a world class showcase of what innovation can achieve”.

The National Health System (NHS) must save £10 billion during the next five years and technology is a forerunner in driving these savings, with proposals such as giving patients access to their medical records through smartphone apps amongst the novel ideas. But the NHS case is far from lonely: it is just a piece of the big picture of jobs automation. So how many jobs are at risk in Britain, what are the new opportunities stemming from computerisation and how can we cope with this trend?

Which jobs are at risk of computerisation?

According to Autor and Dorn, the jobs more at risk are those of low-skill workers performing routine tasks. In other words, the higher the routine-task intensity of a job, the higher the risk of displacement due to technology.

Brynjolfsson and McAfee believe that algorithms for big data will menace a wide range of non-routing cognitive tasks, while Robotics-VO warn that advanced robots have the ability and dexterity to perform a broad range of manual jobs.

But it’s not all doom and gloom. Frey and Osborne investigated the other side of the coin in an attempt to unveil the bottlenecks of jobs computerisation, i.e, the obstacles to the replacement of people with robots. The research found machines to be less capable than humans in tasks involving:

  • perception, as people perform better than robots within an unstructured work environment;
  • manipulation, since robots are not able to deal with irregular objects;
  • creative intelligence, because combining ideas requires a rich store of knowledge;
  • social intelligence, that is the ability to recognise human emotions and to respond cleverly to such inputs.


How many jobs are at risk of computerisation in the UK?

Research by Bruegel acknowledges that in the UK 47 per cent of jobs may be replaced by machines.  Another study carried out by Deloitte with Frey and Osborne is less gloomy: only 35 per cent of positions are at high risk of replacement. In particular, lower-paid jobs are over five times more likely to be replaced than higher-paid, with the survey finding that where jobs are being reduced, automation will be the most important driver.

“Cities Outlook 2014” says that Britain is a very centralised country, having 80 per cent of new private sectors jobs in London. According to Deloitte, 30 per cent of the jobs at risk are in London and lower-paid ones are almost eight times more at risk. But it’s not just bad news for London: 36 per cent of businesses based here plan to expand their property footprint in the capital, attracted especially by the financial package, the workplace environment and the ability lo learn new skills.

Frey and Osborne recommend: “To remain a world leading city, London needs to manage the transition of its workforce into new occupations and industries, as it has done so successfully in the past”.

Get on track with jobs computerisation

To cope with this transformation, people need to be open to change and ready to adapt. There’s no need to destroy the machines that are going to take your job, the smartest way to avoid being hit by a sudden change is gradually changing. For instance, those having a job at risk of replacement should learn another job that machines can’t replicate. This idea implies that the educational system should provide consistent training courses targeted to workers more likely to be displaced.

As far as top managers are concerned, they should change their decision making process, suggest Howard and Brynjolfsson. Executives should shift from intuition-based to data-based choices, bearing in mind the increasing importance of big data. Future leaders will be people able to use data to solve problems. Ultimately, jobs automation brings change. But it is not the only opportunity related to computerisation.

Is computerisation always bad for jobs?

On the one hand, it is clear the jobs automation kills certain positions. But think about the ones created by technology.

Considering that of the top-ten most popular job titles of LinkedIn members’ profiles that didn’t exist in 2008, eight out of ten have to do with technology, it is evident that computers both take and create jobs. From iOS and Android developers, social media interns, data scientists, UI/UX designers, big data architects, cloud services specialists and digital marketing specialists, new jobs are as abundant as lost jobs, so keeping up with the pace of change is the remedy to mass-computerisation of our jobs.

And finally, don’t forget the digital newspaper that you are reading now: “The London Economic” would be impossible to deliver without the web. Some threats from technologies, if properly addressed, can turn out to be amazing opportunities.

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