Your New Co-Worker Could Be a Machine

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By Gayle Cinquegrani

People have been wondering how they’d adapt to the presence of robots in their everyday lives ever since the futuristic Jetsons cartoon debuted 50 years ago.

The Jetsons often used the idea for laughs, but people must come to grips with the idea because automation is spreading in the workplace.

The technology already exists to automate almost half the tasks being done by workers throughout the world, McKinsey Global Institute, the research arm of consulting firm McKinsey & Company, concluded in a report released last month. About 60 percent of all occupations could have at least 30 percent of their activities automated today, but fewer than 5 percent of occupations could be fully automated, the report said.

“The nature of work will change,” and “people will perform activities that are complementary to the work that machines do,” according to the report, “A Future That Works: Automation, Employment, And Productivity.” The report analyzed more than 2,000 work activities across 800 occupations.

“We need everybody working plus the robots to create the economic growth that we need,” Michael Chui, a partner at McKinsey Global Institute, told Bloomberg BNA Jan. 25. “Many countries are simply growing older” and will rely on automation to bolster the output of their workforces, he said.

Machines are most likely to take over tasks that “include predictable physical activities” such as those commonly found in manufacturing, food service and retail jobs, “as well as collecting and processing data,” which exist “across the entire spectrum of sectors, skills and wages,” the report said.

Tasks that include “decision making, planning, and creative tasks, or managing and developing people” are significantly less likely to be automated, the report said. Only about 25 percent of the work done by top executives “could potentially be automated, particularly analyzing reports and data, reviewing status reports, and preparing staff assignments.”

Education will have to evolve to include retraining programs that help workers shift to new roles, the report said. Schools must improve workers’ science and math skills and put a new emphasis on creative and critical thinking, according to the report.

“Rather than worry about mass unemployment, we should worry about mass redeployment,” Chui said. Companies “have a role to play in reskilling their workplaces,” and governments could make sure “that infrastructure is in place” and that there are “programs that support reskilling,” he said.

The “challenge for policymakers” will be “coming up with policies to enable people to continue to work alongside the machines,” Chui said.

The report suggested policymakers implement policies that help workers cope with the fallout from automation. “Ideas such as earned income tax credits, universal basic income, conditional transfers, shorter workweeks, and adapted social safety nets could be considered and tested,” the report said.

“I agree with the McKinsey report that the impact won’t be as apocalyptic as some observers say, but I think it’s a mistake to be complacent about it,” Tom Davenport, an information systems professor at Babson College and author of a book about automation, told Bloomberg BNA Jan. 24. “A lot of jobs will involve working alongside machines.” Even if only some of a job’s tasks can be automated, the work “could be restructured so the tasks that could be automated would be automated,” he said.

“You don’t want to compete with a machine. Either figure out what they’re doing and then do something else, or collaborate” with the machine, Davenport said. “If there’s already a system that does a big chunk of what you do, look for a different kind of career. If there’s something that does a task or two that you do, gravitate toward the more human, emotional kind of activities” that machines can’t perform, he advised.

Developing interpersonal skills “is one solution,” especially if the worker selects “the kind of job where that is valued,” Davenport said. A physician, for example, might avoid the practice of radiology, which could be automated, and become a general practitioner “because people will want some human interaction” with their doctors.

Now that robots are able to dispense financial planning advice, human financial advisers could also hone their skills in “financial psychiatry,” Davenport said. He noted a human would be better than a robot at calming investors during an economic downturn or finding a middle ground between a husband and wife who disagree on investment strategy.

“Very highly creative” jobs—like writing comedy for television shows—will continue to be done by people as well, Davenport said.

For those workers who aren’t able to adapt, “organizations and societies should help people out,” Davenport said. “I think we’re going to be looking at a guaranteed basic income for those who don’t succeed.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Gayle Cinquegrani in Washington at

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Tony Harris in Washington at

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