Understanding the Effects of Automation on Employment

We’ve been hearing stories about the impending collapse of the human workforce for at least the last 30 years – possibly longer depending on what movies we’ve seen. You already know how it goes. Robots will come along and take our jobs. Artificial intelligence (AI) will eventually become self-sufficient, and we will all die anyway, at which point we will no longer require a job.

The thing is, much like we were supposed to have flying cars by now, much of what we were told would happen has not happened.

Nonetheless, the use of automation and AI continues to drive everything from job market fears to political debates over policies such as universal basic income.

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Employers are expected to depend more on computers to perform tasks that humans currently perform. Using today’s technology, approximately half of all employee tasks could be automated. Because computers are generally less expensive, less prone to error, and more proficient in some areas than human employees, it is clear that robots will play an increasing role in the future of work.

The New Automation: Is This Time Different?

The “new automation” of the coming decades, with much more advanced robotics and artificial intelligence (AI), will broaden the range of tasks and jobs that machines can perform. AI has the potential for significantly more worker dislocation and inequality than in prior eras of automation. This has the potential to affect college graduates and professionals far more severely than in the past. Indeed, new automation will result in the loss of millions of jobs for vehicle drivers and retail workers, as well as healthcare workers, lawyers, accountants, finance specialists, and a variety of other professionals.

AI will exacerbate the challenges that many workers will face as a result of automation, while also contributing to higher living standards through increased worker productivity. Simultaneously, a much more robust set of policy responses will be required to ensure that workers can adapt and that the benefits of automation are broadly shared.

Which Jobs are Robots likely to Replace?

Numerous jobs will survive even as tasks become more automated. According to McKinsey report, robotics and other computers will likely take over less than 5% of jobs.

Computers will instead take over specific tasks that they can complete more efficiently or cost-effectively than humans. Predictable or repetitive work, physical tasks, machine operation, and data processing and collection are examples. Artificial intelligence is transforming many industries and, for example, will have a significant impact on healthcare careers.

Computers will take over some of the tasks performed by people at all levels of education and at all stages of their careers. These changes, however, will have a greater impact on certain industries than others. The following industries are likely to see a significant increase in automated workers:


The good news is that construction jobs are increasing as a result of the increased demand for new buildings, improved roads, and other infrastructure development. Some construction tasks, on the other hand, are ideal for robots. These include any repetitive physical labor, such as construction equipment operation, demolition, and basic material installation and repair.

Jobs and tasks requiring more expertise, such as complex installations and repairs, as well as construction site management, are unlikely to be replaced by robots anytime soon.

Food Service

Automation is already on the rise in the food service industry. This is especially true in fast-food restaurants, which typically prioritize speed and efficiency. Customers can use computers to place orders and make payments. They can also do basic repetitive tasks in the kitchen, such as dishwashing and food preparation.

People will continue to work in food service jobs that require creativity and skill (such as chefs and cooks, particularly in fine dining restaurants) as well as human interaction. Management positions will continue to require real people with strong supervisory abilities.


For decades, robots have been present in manufacturing, led by the automotive industry. That presence is rapidly expanding as technology advances and robotics costs fall. Many manufacturing jobs (including assembler, fabricator, machinist, and others) entail performing repetitive, predictable tasks. Machines are already taking over at least some of these jobs, and this trend is expected to continue.

Office Administration

Administrative and office support workers perform many tasks that computers could and, in some cases, have already taken over. Predictable jobs that computers can or will soon be able to do include scheduling appointments, answering simple phone calls, entering data, and generating reports. Administrative jobs include everything from secretaries to paralegals to office managers, and many of them still require human qualities that will be difficult to automate.


Many large-chain retailers have already automated some tasks. Automated checkout services are becoming more common, but this is just the beginning. Robots and other computers are increasingly being used to perform routine tasks such as stocking shelves, checking inventory, and cleaning aisles. Of course, stores that place a premium on customer service will continue to employ human salespeople to interact with customers.

Aside from these industries, many other jobs, such as delivery services, bank tellers, insurance underwriters, and others, are likely to be increasingly replaced by computers.

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Which Jobs Are Safe?

Certain tasks cannot yet be adequately replicated by a computer. Computers, for example, cannot express empathy or interact with people in the same way that humans can. As a result, jobs that involve caring for others (such as nurses, psychologists, teachers, and social workers) are generally safe from automation.

Whatever position requires direct supervision of others is unlikely to be automated. This is due to the fact that robots and computers lack the emotional intelligence and skills required to supervise humans (at least for now). Jobs requiring creativity, such as writers, artists, and graphic designers, are less likely to be automated.

While many predictable tasks will be automated, this will not be the case for work in unpredictable environments. Outdoor jobs (such as gardening) and jobs involving unpredictable populations (such as young children) will be more difficult to automate.

Any job that requires extensive education and/or expertise is less likely to be automated. However, keep in mind that certain tasks within each of these jobs may still be automated. The human touch of nurses and doctors, for example, will remain important, but computers may increasingly 

Limitations of Automation

Aside from repetitive and predictable tasks, a human counterpart will be a formidable competitor for a robot. Three areas stand out where humans outperform robots.

Social Intelligence

Despite advancements in affective computing (Gossett, S., 2020), artificial intelligence (AI) is still in its infancy, unable to crack the code on caring, persuasion, negotiating, and other social intelligence traits. Even as advances in affective computing, emotion AI, social robotics, and other related fields are made, the findings are still in their early stages.

Natural language processing, sentiment analysis, voice emotion, and facial movement analysis studies can only help AI recognize basic, stark emotional patterns. They have yet to distinguish the nuances of a smirk versus a smile using facial recognition, or sarcasm versus humor in voice tone. Furthermore, machines are taught to recognize emotions but not to feel them (a scary thought). That is, our science is not yet ready to give robots empathic qualities to the extent that science fiction can (Data of Star Trek, Ash of Alien, the Architect in Matrix, and, surely, the Terminator).

Creative intelligence

Humans are struggling to comprehend the science of creativity. Much less, machines, as a result, robots cannot yet take over a job that requires creativity.

The pattern in creativity is so vague that explaining it is at best simplistic (right brain hemisphere for creative, left hemisphere for analytics). Attempts are being made, however, to define the physiological aspects of creativity. According to a Scientific American article, creative people appear to have fewer connections between their right and left brain hemispheres. These shorter corpus callosum connections are thought to give the person more time to develop ideas.

Creativity is as much about psychology as it is about biology, with nurture playing a role rather than nature. Science-backed advice on how to help a child be creative frequently revolves around creating an environment conducive to learning creativity. According to studies, creative genius is influenced by what a child learns from his or her parents, others, watching imaginative movies, and other external factors. Still, we are decades away from teaching this human skill to a machine, so artists and anyone dealing with creativity can breathe a sigh of relief.

Dexterity of human senses

Dexterity refers not only to our ability to manipulate objects precisely but also to our ability to perceive and understand complex, irregular objects with the same dexterity as structured things. It’s easy to imagine a robot outrunning a human sprinter across a well-defined straight, clear path. However, with irregular obstacles placed along the path, the same robot will struggle to defeat a human. Machines simply do not have the ability to experiment with irregular shapes, textures, and sizes in the same way that humans do. Expect a human to occupy the position when the job requires attention to intricate details that require solid synchronization between the hand and mind. Jewelers, dentists, surgeons, mechanics, and carpenters are just a few examples.

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How to Prepare for Automation?

Don’t let this information frighten you or cause you to abandon your job. In an increasingly automated world, there are numerous steps you can take to ensure job security.

Pick up new skills: Take the time to learn skills that robots cannot. Improve your problem-solving abilities, management skills, creativity, and emotional intelligence. If you can highlight these abilities, you will be an invaluable member of any team (and an employee not easily replaced by a computer).

Go back to school: Jobs that require further education are less likely to be replaced by robots, in part because teaching all of that information to a computer would take too much time and energy. Returning to school to specialize in a topic related to your job is an excellent way to make yourself indispensable. Consider changing careers without returning to school or finding a short-term training program to broaden your skill set.

Practice adaptability: Although you may not lose your job to a robot, your daily responsibilities may change. Make it clear to your employer that you are adaptable, flexible, and willing to change and take on new challenges. Prepare to work with more computers and robots in the future than you do now. Employers will be impressed if you can easily and openly adapt to this changing workforce.

Join the robots: Also with the growth of automation, new job opportunities will emerge. People will have to develop, build, troubleshoot, and supervise computers in the workplace, for example. Consider a career in which you would work alongside computers and robotics if you are interested in them.

In a Nutshell

Keep in mind that some reports claim that most jobs will not be lost to robots, but that many tasks will change. As a result, don’t freak out. There is no reason to leave your current job because you are afraid of being replaced by a machine. Instead, concentrate on doing your best work, being adaptable and open-minded, and continuing to develop your skills.

[To share your insights with us, please write to sghosh@martechseries.com]