Are Low-skilled Jobs More Vulnerable to Automation?

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The following is an excerpt from GigaOm publisher Byron Reese’s new book, The Fourth Age: Smart Robots, Conscious Computers, and the Future of Humanity. You can purchase the book here.

The Fourth Age explores the implications of automation and AI on humanity, and has been described by Ethernet inventor and 3Com founder Bob Metcalfe as framing “the deepest questions of our time in clear language that invites the reader to make their own choices. Using 100,000 years of human history as his guide, he explores the issues around artificial general intelligence, robots, consciousness, automation, the end of work, abundance, and immortality.”

One of those deep questions of our time:

When the topic of automation and AI comes up, one of the chief concerns is always technology’s potential impact on jobs. There is a common assumption that it will be low-skilled jobs which are first automated, but is that really how automation will change the job market? In this excerpt from The Fourth Age, Byron Reese explores which sorts of jobs are most vulnerable to automation.


The assumptions that low-skilled workers will be the first to go and that there won’t be enough jobs for them undoubtedly have some truth to them, but they require some qualification. Generally speaking, when scoring jobs for how likely they are to be replaced by automation, the lower the wage a job pays, the higher the chance it will be automated. The inference usually drawn from this phenomenon is that a low-wage job is a low-skill job.

This is not always the case. From a robot’s point of view, which of these jobs requires more skill: a waiter or a highly trained radiologist who interprets CT scans? A waiter, hands down. It requires hundreds of skills, from spotting rancid meat to cleaning up baby vomit. But because we take all those things for granted, we don’t think they are all that hard. To a robot, the radiologist job, by comparison, is a cakewalk. It is just data in, probabilities out.

This phenomenon is so well documented that it has a name, the Moravec paradox. Hans Moravec was among those who noted that it is easier to do hard, brainy things with computers than “easy” things. It is easier to get a computer to beat a grandmaster at chess than it is to get one to tell the difference between a photo of a dog and a cat.

Waiters’ jobs pay less than radiologists’ jobs not because they require fewer skills, but because the skills needed to be a waiter are widely available, whereas comparatively few people have the uncommon ability to interpret CT scans.

What this means is that the effects of automation are not going to be overwhelmingly borne by low-wage earners. Order takers at fast-food places may be replaced by machines, but the people who clean up the restaurant at night won’t be. The jobs that automation affects will be spread throughout the wage spectrum.

All that being said, there is a widespread concern that automation is destroying jobs at the “bottom” and creating new jobs at the “top.” Automation, this logic goes, may be making new jobs at the top like geneticist but is destroying jobs at the bottom like warehouse worker. Doesn’t this situation lead to a giant impoverished underclass locked out of gainful employment?

Often, the analysis you hear goes along these lines: “The new jobs are too complex for less-skilled workers. For instance, if a new robot replaces a warehouse worker, tomorrow the world will need one less warehouse worker. Even if the world also happened to need an additional geneticist, what are you doing to do? Will the warehouse worker have the time, money and aptitude to train for the geneticist’s job?”

No. The warehouse worker doesn’t become the geneticist. What actually happens is this: A college biology professor becomes the new geneticist; a high-school biology teacher takes the college job; a substitute elementary teacher takes the high school job; and the unemployed warehouse worker becomes a substitute teacher. This is the story of progress. When a new job is created at the top, everyone gets a promotion. The question is not “Can a warehouse worker become a geneticist” but “Can everyone do a job a little harder than the one they currently do?” If the answer to that is yes, which I emphatically believe, then we want all new jobs to be created at the top, so that everyone gets a chance to move up a rung on the ladder of success.


To read more of GigaOm publisher Byron Reese’s new book, The Fourth Age: Smart Robots, Conscious Computers, and the Future of Humanity, you can purchase it here.

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