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6/27/2016
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Robots, AI Won't Destroy Jobs, Yet

Cognitive systems will only eliminate a small portion of jobs in the near future, according to Forrester. But the impact will still be significant.

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The future of human workers is not as bleak as many fear, says a recent report by research firm Forrester.

Though cognitive technologies like artificial intelligence, machine learning, and robotic automation will eliminate 16% of US jobs by 2025, according to Forrester, they will also create new jobs amounting to a 9% increase over the same period.

The net job loss, 7%, thus qualifies as only a bit bleak. It's not quite the apocalyptic 47% job loss figure suggested in Carl Benedikt Frey's and Michael Osborne's 2013 report, "The Future of Employment: How Susceptible Are Jobs to Computerisation?"

Last month, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) came to a similar conclusion in a report titled  "The Risk of Automation for Jobs in OECD Countries: A Comparative Analysis." The OECD report said about 9% of jobs on average across OECD states are subject to automation.

There's hope for humans still. Forrester sees growth in-person service jobs, like funeral directors. (Self-driving hearse startups, take note.) Robot service technicians and other highly skilled workers can also look forward to ongoing employment.

[See IBM Watson: Machine-of-All-Trades .]

But white collar office workers should sleep with one eye open. Forrester projects that the 89 million white collar jobs in the US will decline by 12% between 2016 and 2025. Four categories of worker can expect to be affected, though at different rates: office and administrative workers; sales employees; management, business, and financial personnel; and professionals.

Office and administrative support personnel should expect rapid job cannibalization over the next few years. The bloodletting should end around 2024, Forrester anticipates, because most basic tasks will be automated and workers will have moved on to "higher-order tasks" (or perhaps will have been promoted to funeral director).

A million business-to-business salespeople will lose their jobs by 2020, Forrester predicts, due to self-service automation. The report's explanation for this is that "the knowledge set for B2B sales is more constrained" than other office jobs, making it relatively easy to create chat bots that can handle sales support tasks.

(Image: Forrester)

(Image: Forrester)

Professionals and those in management, business, and financial positions can rest easy for a few years, but not forever. By 2021, Forrester says it expects cognitive systems to have reached a level of sophistication that allows meaningful participation in decision making.

The firm's report recounts how a senior director for UBS describes the process of closing its financial reports as marred by data quality issues and inefficiencies. "We believe that robots will be closing the books within five years," the executive says.

In many cases, automated systems will not replace workers, but will work alongside them. Businesses will need to ensure that humans and machines get along. "Human and organizational issues keep automation technologists up at night -- and rightly so, because human/robot frictions have already begun," the report says.

For companies implementing changes along these lines, Forrester advises allocating resources to cultural and change management issues, and even providing financial incentives in relation to the rollout of cognitive systems. The firm also recommends that companies rethink their talent acquisition strategies to ensure they have personnel with the skills needed to complement cognitive systems.

Even this less bleak future anticipated by Forrester sounds unappealing. "The cultural backlash will be real and powerful, but it won't roll automation back," the report concludes. "Labor conflict over automation will escalate as millions of today’s employees, short of digital-age skills, slide into the obsolescence queue."

(Cover Image: iLexx/iStockphoto)

Thomas Claburn has been writing about business and technology since 1996, for publications such as New Architect, PC Computing, InformationWeek, Salon, Wired, and Ziff Davis Smart Business. Before that, he worked in film and television, having earned a not particularly useful ... View Full Bio

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