Artificial intelligence puts 42% of jobs ‘at risk,’ study says

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New developments in artificial intelligence and robotics put 42 per cent of Canadian workers at high risk of seeing their jobs disappear or significantly changed in the next two decades, a new report concludes.

While advancing computerization has already made some jobs obsolete, the rapid development of artificial intelligence is poised to become a new “inflection point” for more dramatic job change over the next 10 to 20 years, said Sean Mullin, executive director of the Brookfield Institute for Innovation + Entrepreneurship at Ryerson University.

(Is your job at risk? Find out here.)

Mr. Mullin said computers are expected to take on jobs that previously required higher “cognitive skills” as new technology allows machines to learn on their own and apply their knowledge.

“If that even partially comes true, we’re going to see a much more fundamental restructuring of the labour force and potentially a much higher percentage of jobs at risk than I think we’ve seen in the past,” Mr. Mullin said.

The new Brookfield Institute research report examined all major job categories in Canada and applied a methodology developed in 2013 at Oxford University in Britain. The Oxford project asked a group of technology experts to examine key job categories and predict the extent to which technology could replace the functions in the next 10 to 20 years.

Jobs that require higher education and greater creativity and judgment are broadly expected to face less disruption, while jobs that are more routine or less-skilled could see dramatic changes, with many positions disappearing and others changing to require new skills or job tasks.

Retail sales people are expected to be among the most at risk as staffing requirements change due to online shopping and anticipated new in-store technology. Office jobs such as administrative assistants, administrative officers, general office support workers and receptionists are also expected to see jobs cuts with the rise of new technologies.

Mr. Mullin said the most vulnerable jobs are lower-paying on average, require less education and employ proportionally more young people, such as food-counter service workers. However, some higher-paying jobs are also expected to face challenges, including financial auditors and accountants, who are predicted to have a 94-per-cent chance of being affected by new technologies.

The shifts are expected to particularly impact the types of retail and food service jobs that have often provided part-time work for students. Mr. Mullin said those jobs have historically introduced young people to basic work skills. Their disappearance could give rise to even more calls for university programs to include co-op or job placement components to help students gain experience as entry-level jobs disappear, he said.

The report concluded 36 per cent of workers are at low-risk of seeing their jobs affected by technology, including many involving personal services to people, such as nurses, school teachers, daycare workers, social workers, doctors and hair stylists. Management jobs in most fields are also expected to be comparatively safer than their related lower-tier, front-line positions.

Mr. Mullin said many management jobs become more necessary when jobs disappear below them, because companies need people to manage new complex systems. While retail sales jobs, for example, are expected to be highly vulnerable to new technology, retail and wholesale managers have low odds of being impacted.

“In some ways when the entry-level jobs become obsolete or get replaced with automation, the second-level jobs in some ways become even more important,” he said.

Many jobs in the computer field are expected to be safe, with computer programmers predicted to have just a 4.8-per-cent chance of major impacts due to technology. Engineers, architects, mathematicians, doctors and scientists in many fields also have low odds of being affected.

Lawyers have just a 3.5-per-cent chance of being displaced by technology, but other jobs in the legal system are expected to be more vulnerable, with legal administrative assistants and paralegals predicted to have more than 90-per-cent odds of job disruption.

The research report acknowledged some of the future predictions may prove wrong and some jobs will likely continue to be staffed by people even if computers could technically do them. Some jobs may be unduly expensive to automate, for example, or companies could discover customers prefer to be served by people rather than machines.

“Certainly there are things that could come along, trends that are unforeseen, that could totally change the trajectory we are on,” Mr. Mullin said.

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