Fears automation will result in significant job losses may be overblown, according to new research from the OECD. While the research indicates as many as one in seven jobs could be lost to artificial intelligence (AI) automation, those numbers are lower than what had previously been predicted.

Predicting Job Losses Due to Automation

In 2013, a paper by Oxford University academics Carl Frey and Michael Osborne, predicted that roughly 47 percent of jobs in the U.S. were at high risk of being automated. The paper, The Future of Employment: How Susceptible Are Jobs To Computerization, also showed wages and educational attainment had a strong negative relationship with an occupation’s probability of computerization. In other words, the less a person earns and the less likely that person has received a higher education, the more likely their job will be computerized.

Not so, according to the OECD report, Automation, Skills Use And Training. Yes, automation will result in job losses, but only 14 percent of jobs will be “highly automatable” (defined as those with a 70 percent or higher chance of automation), which would result in 13 million jobs being lost across the U.S. However, the report goes on to state that one in two jobs are likely to be "significantly affected by automation."

The discrepancy between the two reports, the OECD explains, is due to the many jobs that can only be partially automated, which will still require human intervention at some point in the automated process. Even still, when projected globally, this means that one in seven jobs will disappear, representing 66 million jobs across the 32-participating member countries of the OECD.

Related Article: Why Artificial Intelligence Will Create More Jobs Than it Destroys

Americans Don’t Fear Automation

In February, New York City-based cloud mobile and online business messaging solutions provider LivePerson published the results of a survey it carried out to assess fears of automation among 2000 U.S. consumers. It found most did not believe they would be replaced by robots. Some of the findings indicate that:

  • More than 46 percent of respondents reported they were not worried robots will replace them in the workforce and 58 percent felt very secure and confident their job will still exist in 10 years.
  • 65 percent of respondents believed industries other than their own may be at risk, but their job and industry was safe.
  • Consumers see manufacturing (68 percent), banking/accounting/financial services (52 percent), and customer service (52 percent) as the top three industries most at risk of automation in the next 20 years.
  • Nearly 20 percent of consumers would not trust a robot to replace any job.
  • Most reported they have taken some measures to increase their job security. Forty-five percent have taken a course to learn new skills, and 32 percent have attended conferences focused on professional development.

Rurik Bradbury, global head of conversational strategy at LivePerson, said their findings dovetailed with those of the OECD. “It’s wrong to simply say that 'bots will replace jobs.' In fact, bots will usually replace tasks. What we will see in the call center is a gradual injection of AI into more and more areas, an evolutionary transfer of tasks done by humans to bots,” he said. 

These are the tasks that will be automated. He said that for now at least, bots are still poor at being general-purpose helpers, frequently misunderstanding and failing to understand human intent. "The key is to think of bots as specialists in certain tasks — ones that are simple, predictable, easy to automate."

Optimizing Work With AI

Shadee Ardalan is director of marketing at Raleigh, NC-based Ivy.ai, which builds chatbots for higher education institutions including Harvard, Stanford and Yale. She said automation of redundant service requests is enhancing customer service, and employing chatbots in colleges and universities is rapidly gaining popularity as campuses want to make the best use of their staff's time while satisfying students’ needs and modernizing their systems.

She noted chatbots are used for queries that fall into three categories: 1) transactional, 2) a blend of transactional and consultative and 3) consultative. "Chatbots are great for category one and pretty good for category two but can never replace category three. Thus, for the repetitive, tedious work that requires less expertise and can be automated, schools are using bots to augment their efforts to manage workflow," she said.

She cited the work of economist James Bessen, who said it took 45 years after the ATM made its debut to see even an eight percent decrease in the number of bank tellers. In fact, of the 271 occupations listed on the 1950 census, the only one eliminated by 2010 was the elevator operator.

How AI Benefits the Workplace

What is clear, though, is that automation is an increasingly important part of the workplace. Using these growing tools to offer more meaningful insight will enhance the customer support industry and offer a more personalized approach for most industries, said Dan Kiely, CEO and co-founder of Cork, Ireland-based customer experience specialist Voxpro — powered by TELUS International.

Take for example, customer support bot technology: this automation tool doesn’t replace talent, but helps support talent. Bots free your teams to move to more complex challenges and will result in a step-change increase in resolution speeds that will impact the team’s overall success. In this instance, automation is serving to complement the support teams by handling transactional duties.

Learning Opportunities

Related Article: How to Allay Employee Fears About Robotic Process Automation

Why Workers Need To Reskill

For those people working in one of the job categories that are at risk of significant job losses, Naveen Vijay, director of process automation design at McLean, Va.-based Digital Intelligence Systems recommended training. 

He said no matter how you approach it, for all of automation's benefits, there will be an expected decrease in available jobs. "There is no way around it. If professionals aren't open to further opportunities or willing to retrain to gain additional skill sets, it will prove a difficult transition," he said.

Human Resources (HR) is one area where automation is rapidly gaining ground. HR, by its very nature and name, epitomizes the idea of person-to-person interaction. But many daily tasks within the department involve mounds of paperwork and filing headaches — prime candidates for automation. In the case of talent acquisition, AI and natural language processing can take data on possible candidates to generate real-time, relatable feedback. These functions don't eliminate the need for recruiters, it simply removes the initial steps to allow the recruiter to focus on specifics, while moving appropriate candidates forward.

Dennis Walsh, president Americas and Asia Pac of Morrisville, NC.-based automation provider Redwood Software said while the fear that robots will replace human jobs is common, it betrays a lack of understanding as to what will happen in the workplace. While some jobs will be automated, this does not necessarily result in unemployment, nor does it naturally lead in that direction.

"It’s crucial to see this as a major opportunity for progress rather than a danger. With every minute that a human plugs numbers into a spreadsheet, that is one less minute that she or he could be spending on strategic work," he said.

Related Article: How to Survive When the Robots Come For Your Job

Business Leaders Managing Robots

One element of automation and AI's application is often overlooked, according to Jeff Winkler, founder and CEO of San Diego, Calif.-based Origin Code Academy: what automation means from a leadership perspective.

He said enterprise leaders also need to become leaders of robots. To do that leaders need to learn how to code and direct robots. Learning how to write and speak code isn’t only necessary for ‘robot-proofing’ future employment, but also to improving skills that can be effective in jobs today.

"By learning how to code, you will be able to automate at least a small portion of your existing job duties, which will result in more efficiency, more cost savings, and bigger bottom lines — and perhaps even a raise. The easiest place to start thinking about how new programming skills could benefit your current career is in connecting the software tools you already use and getting them to 'speak' to each other,” he said.