Why is everyone talking about robots taking over white-collar work?

Experts say employers could outsource many jobs to robots in the next decade.

In the next decade or so, a wave of radiologists, pathologists, accountants, lawyers, journalists, and even teachers could lose their jobs to robots.
In the next decade or so, a wave of radiologists, pathologists, accountants, lawyers, journalists, and even teachers could lose their jobs to robots. –GLOBE

In the next decade or so, a wave of radiologists, pathologists, accountants, lawyers, journalists, and even teachers could lose their jobs, according to Tom Davenport, a management and information technology professor at Babson College.

Why?

They won’t be out of employment due to the economy, or competition from their peers necessarily. Davenport thinks robots will replace them.

“In the past, we thought [computerization] was mostly for manual workers, but then it affected service workers like bank tellers, and now it’s even impacting knowledge workers,’’ Davenport said.

It’s not as crazy a scenario as it sounds, at least according to The Washington Post, Harvard Business Review and The Atlantic, which have all recently published stories that take seriously the idea of a robotic revolution and consider how it might affect job opportunities on a practical level, as well as how it might change the way we think about work more broadly.

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‘Robot Revolution’

Machines began taking the place of factory workers in the 1960s and 1970s, but the effects of the first robotics revolution weren’t really felt till the ‘80s, according to The Atlantic’s “A World Without Work.’’ Since 2000, the number of manufacturing jobs has dropped by 5 million, or 30 percent, which shows how much we’re still feeling the effects of the initial robot movement. A similar slow-spreading phenomenon may soon happen with white collar workers.

We’ve already seen computerization spread to service fields.

When telecommunications giant AT&T began replacing workers with computers and software, the number of employees dwindled from 758,611 people in 1964 to 55,000 employees today, yet AT&T’s worth continued expanding from $267 billion to $370 billion.

With roughly 10 percent (or 15.4 million) of the U.S. labor force working as salespeople, office clerks, cashiers, and food and beverage servers, the idea of service workers being outsourced should be sobering. Oxford University and Deloitte researchers painted a dark image in 2013 when they predicted machines could perform roughly half of all U.S. jobs by 2033. Others have been noticing a creeping robot takeover for quite some time.

“Even 10 years ago, automated decision making was widespread in certain industries like finance and insurance,’’ Davenport said, describing how a computer can figure out whether a person qualifies for insurance or a credit card in a matter of seconds. “There are always some exceptions and we’ve needed humans to refine these systems, but it has lowered the growth of these professions pretty substantially.’’

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Until recently, white-collar workers have seemed resistant to robots. Experts predict this immunity won’t last long, thanks to artificial intelligence (AI).

In the near future, Davenport said professions that typically make very good money, and rely on decision-making, reviewing documents, or analyzing data will also be jeopardized.

Rethink Robotics, a Boston-based company that’s changing the way robots are used in research and industrial settings, has designed the “Baxter Research Robot,’’ a robot capable of assisting research teams in product testing and other experiments, while a company called Intuitive Surgical has introduced robots that can assist surgeons in performing minimally invasive surgery.

‘The American Nightmare’

Experts like John Russo, a Youngstown State University professor who studies labor issues, predicts the robot takeover will eventually create an overhaul in how Americans approach work and their own identity, with the next generation of employees having more part-time jobs and less retirement savings – struggling to “cobble together a living,’’ he said.

Pervasive technology has already affected how we interact with one another, Russo said, describing how any time he eats at a restaurant, he notices couples texting on their smartphones instead of conversing. What happens when technology steals more than our interactions, sweeping up new jobs and creating more down time?

“In American society, work is such a very important element to our identity and who we are,’’ Russo told Boston.com. Indeed, a 2014 Gallup poll found that 55 percent of American workers get their primary sense of identity from their jobs. “The American Dream is something that held American society together. Each successive generation was supposed to move forward and do better, and that now seems out of reach. It seems more like the American Nightmare.’’

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A famous 1989 study found that Chicago workers who reported wanting to be somewhere other than work also reported feeling more anxious when they were actually elsewhere. This “paradox of work’’ shows people would rather complain about their jobs than enjoy too much leisure time. If workers lose their jobs to robots, will we become a nation of “guilty couch potatoes,’’ as The Atlantic suggests?

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How to keep your job safe from robots:

Davenport said there are a few ways to prevent your job from being outsourced.

1. Make friends with robots: “If you want to keep your job or be appealing to your employer in the next decade, you better make these machines your friend, not your master,’’ he said.

In a recent article for Harvard Business Review (HBR) (co-authored by Davenport), MIT economist David Autor points out that many machines complement human work, increasing productivity, raising earnings, and augmenting (rather than automating) skilled labor.

Camille Nicita, CEO of Gongos, a company in metropolitan Detroit that helps clients gain consumer insights told HBR that even though her company seems like one that could be easily robotized, she plans on working with computers, not against them. Sophisticated decision analytics based on large data sets will uncover new insights but will give her human workers the opportunity to “go deeper and offer clients ‘context, humanization, and the ‘why’ behind big data,’’’ she said.

2. Do something that probably won’t become automated: “Either something computers can’t do so well, or something so narrow that nobody would find it economical to automate,’’ Davenport said. His son is a comedy writer, and as far as he can tell, computers haven’t figured out how to automate humor.

Other jobs like primary care physicians and nurses are probably safe for now as well, Davenport thinks, because people still want to talk to an actual human being about their health. But you never know. I also thought I’d only ever want to interact with a real dog, but this robotic dog is pretty darn cute.

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