New division of labor

There’s been an interesting thread running on Twitter lately on the topic of robots. “Robots” it claims “are taking our jobs”. It’s interesting, not just because it raises the debate about jobs going to robots but because it implies that something new is happening and that robots are in control of the process.

Which jobs in your company will disappear in the next five years? Is yours under threat from robots and how are you – and your company – planning for a new slimmed-down future?

Technology is changing the face of our workforces – the impact will be more significant than the Industrial Revolution and outsourcing to India combined. Estimates say that 45% of jobs will be automated in 20 years (see below). Yet who is planning for this?

There is a characteristic to all technology. When first introduced, there is little initial impact but then suddenly the technology takes off and changes happen very fast. Digital technology is beginning to move very fast indeed.

In 2004 Frank Levy and Richard Murnane published their book The New Division of Labor”. It was about the division between human and computer labour. The authors examined those tasks on a spectrum which at one end could be reduced to a set of rules and at the other end had tasks that cannot be boiled down to a set of rules or algorithms. In particular these latter are tasks that harness the human capacity for pattern recognition, especially recognition of fast changing information.


They gave an example of something that could not easily be seen as happening in the foreseeable future – a machine to drive a car – because it was so complex and demanded fast reaction.

Roll forward just 10 years and on the streets of the UK we have trials of driverless cars. The Google car has been driving on the public highway in the US for several years now, with a flawless accident record.

So here is something that we thought could not easily be automated, yet suddenly can be and the implications of this one piece of technology are huge.

Now there are new sorts of robots, and they behave very much like humans do. They do not go through the same mental processes but the outcome is the same. They behave in a way that has human-like results but they have the advantages of our old friends, the early robots – they don’t get bored, they don’t need to eat or sleep or take holidays and they don’t need incentives to keep working. The driverless car doesn’t suffer from road rage, or the need to show other drivers how fast it can go and it certainly doesn’t drink and drive.

The Oxford Martin’s programme on the Impacts of Future Technology has attempted to quantify the threat to jobs. They looked at the US market and their assessment was that 45% of jobs would be automated in the next 20 years.


Talking a few weeks ago to one of the senior leaders in the retail industry, she said: “We will automate everything we can automate”. And that meant everything. The only jobs that would be left for humans would be those that interacted directly with the customer.

I’d like to introduce you to something called Moravec’s paradox; summarised as the discovery by artificial intelligence and robotics researchers that, contrary to traditional assumptions, high level reasoning requires very little computation but low level sensorimotor skills require enormous computational resources.

What this means has been nicely summarised by Steven Pinker: “The main lesson of 35 years of AI research is that the hard problems are easy and the easy problems are hard…As the new generation of intelligent devices appears it will be the stock analysts and petrochemical engineers and parole board members who are in danger of being replaced by machines. The gardeners, receptionists and cooks are secure in their jobs for decades to come”.

Then lets think about the wider implications for those jobs we currently regard as “professional”. Lawyers, accountants, architects. Now you may regard these roles as irreplaceable but much of the work done by junior to middle ranking lawyers and accountants is repetitive – searching documents, writing standard contracts, auditing accounts.  These are the jobs that will go to automation and we will see what is being called the “hollowing out” of the economy.

A lot of this work is currently outsourced overseas. What is likely to happen in the future is that the work will come back on-shore: not back to workers in this country, but to robots.

So many of the 45% of jobs that are going to disappear are not manual jobs, but jobs that we classify as professional.

We are just beginning to see the start of this trend. Bloomberg reported last year that the overall employment rate for recent law school graduates fell for the sixth year in a row.

If this is the world we are facing, then how should companies react? And perhaps more to the point, how are you personally reacting?