Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael A. Osborne, from Oxford Martin School, published in September 2013 an article on the future of employment, looking at the chances that each one of a set of 702 professional categories have to be made redundant by computerisation in the US context. Their conclusion is that machines could displace almost 47% of the current jobs in that country. So we would have to wait way longer for the return of the jobs lost to technology that some say will result from Schumpeter’s creative destruction (a concept defined in 1942, quite far from our current context, and apparently defined with a different vision than the one under which we usually hear about). Such an outcome would no doubt change entirely our idea of the city, at least the “western city” as we know it.
If I was a luddite I would not be blogging; I am rather optimist, but that is a feeling not always supported by data. However, this text has some interesting elements and a coherent line. To begin with, the article defines a methodology to classify the chances a job has to be computerised. These chances are increased as the tasks implied can be defined and execute by algorythms; it is so easier to computerise the control of a not to complex machine than the work done by a physical therapist, that has to face quite diverse conditions, physical as well as psychological.
However, the complexity and growing efficiency of software implies that complex tasks can be computerised. Beyond the promise of autonomous vehicles, a whole set of functions, as the analysis of legal documents, are being digitized. Some skills that we consider specifically human, as mobility and ability to adapt to unexpected conditions, could be substituted by sets of sensors and motors. Some industries, as construction, can be affected by more prefabs, derivations of 3d printing or a greater relevance of refurbishment by DIY; this last is not in itself a substitution of people by machines, but can sure be helped by easily available information thanks to the internet, and would also ultimately mean less jobs.
Human advantage, according to the authors, would rather be the ability to interact with people: care, negotiation, persuasion, art. In the end, will and sensitivity. Contexts in which robots (that the authors see rising) are still far away. Take translation: I write this blog in three languages, but I do not trust automatic translation, as it has (as of today) no ability to convey double meanings I sometimes play with or other subjective elements of the language. On the other hand, I’m fully confident on Word’s spell checking (it is up to you to say if I’m right there…) as individual words, and even sometimes general grammar, are tasks that are easier to integrate into algorithms. I know that, as a native Spanish-French speaker, my sentences in English are sometimes described by Word as verbose, but sometimes I just happen to want to be verbose… just the same with the passive voice, but as you cannot hear me, I consider this more like an accent, I don’t feel ashamed of.
The article integrates a table with the probability of computerisation for 702 job categories. The most “computerisable” job is that of telemarketers. Insurance underwriters rank 698, watch repairers 697, tellers 683… construction and building inspectors are 351. Architects rank 82, landscape architects 133, urban and regional planners 184, and… computer network architects 208 (while computer systems analysts rank 32). Medical staff are usually in good positions (psychologists 17 or less according to category, doctors in general 15), as well as teachers. However, a lesser chance to get your job digitized doesn’t imply a higher wage…
What would a city loosing 47% of its jobs look like? Some activities we currently understand as the core of urban centrality would suffer, as whole categories of retailers (just think of those selling computers on main street, operating now in a market in which the internet is a tough competition). I’m almost sure we will always have some sort of cafés or eateries, but will we have people serving the treats?