Serious threat or overblown hype?
That's the question many have about recent reports that robots could replace millions of jobs currently held by human workers. On one hand, there's the research by global accounting and consulting company PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) that projects 38% of American jobs could be at risk of replacement by automation within the next 15 or so years. On the other hand, U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin thinks that we're so far away from seeing artificial intelligence take American jobs that "it's not even on [his] radar screen."
Is your job safe from the rise of the robots? The best answer right now: It depends.
How things stand today
First, when people talk about the rise of the robots, they're not necessarily referring to smart machines that resemble humans. Instead, the general use of the word "robots" includes all technology that can handle tasks that humans have performed in the past. The reality is that robots are already an important part of the U.S. economy.
The top 14 industrial robot manufacturers have an estimated 1.6 million robots in use at manufacturing, distribution, and other sites across the world. The automobile industry uses robots extensively. But while robots have replaced some jobs, U.S. automakers have actually been adding jobs overall during the past several years.
Many robots haven't replaced jobs but have instead augmented them. Intuitive Surgical's (ISRG 1.17%) da Vinci robotic surgical system is a great example.
Surgeons and other medical professionals are still just as involved with procedures as they are without using the robotic system. However, instead of having the surgeon stand over the patient, he or she is several feet away at a console. Da Vinci allows the surgeon to see a crisp, high-definition 3-D image of the patient's anatomy. It translates the surgeon's hand movements on the system's controls into precise micro-movements that enable less-invasive surgery.
Da Vinci was used in over 560,000 surgeries in the U.S. last year. How many jobs were displaced? Zero. The technology actually resulted in a net gain of jobs, since Intuitive Surgical employees nearly 3,800 people.
The near future
The World Economic Forum (WEF) projects a loss of 7.1 million jobs to robots in the world's 15 leading countries, including the U.S., by 2020. Which jobs are most likely to be lost? The WEF paints a dire picture for office and administrative workers, estimating that these occupations will make up roughly two-thirds of the total job losses.
Research firm Forrester (FORR -1.75%) has a similar outlook. The company estimates that cognitive technologies, including robots, artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning, and automation, will replace 16% of U.S. jobs by 2025. Like the WEF, Forrester thinks that office and administrative support positions will be most affected.
It's not all bad news, though. The WEF estimates that 2 million new jobs will be created by 2020, especially in certain skilled positions such as data analysts and specialist sales representatives. Forrester projects that around 8.9 million new jobs will be created in the U.S. by 2025, particularly for robot monitoring professionals, data scientists, automation specialists, and content curators. As a result of this growth, Forrester thinks the overall impact of technology will result in a net loss of 7% of American jobs by 2025.
By the early 2030s
Workers in the U.S. and across the world could face the most significant threat in the years after 2025. And it won't be just office support staff.
PwC thinks job losses in the wholesale, retail, and manufacturing industries could be even worse than in the administrative and support services area. In the U.S., financial and insurance sector jobs could be hit hard.
Adoption of driverless cars could wreak havoc in the transportation industry. Taxi and Uber drivers could be forced to find work elsewhere as AI replaces them. The same could happen with many of the estimated 3.5 million truck drivers in the United States.
In general, workers who spend a significant amount of time performing manual or repetitive tasks will be at most risk of losing their jobs to robots over the next 15 years. PwC projects that the greatest impact will be on employees in jobs that require lower levels of education.
What to do
Some think that teachers, registered nurses, and dental hygienists should be in low danger for a while. Over the longer run, however, there are probably few jobs that can be considered completely safe. The potential for AI is so tremendous that it could be just a matter of time before robots can perform nearly every job that humans have.
What can you do if you have years to go before retirement? Getting more education could help. Perhaps you might want to take a look at some of the new jobs that could be created, such as data scientist.
I like the idea of investing in companies that should benefit from the rise of the robots. Intuitive Surgical would be a good one. So would Google's parent, Alphabet (GOOG -0.22%) (GOOGL -0.29%), which is a pioneer in driverless-car technology and in artificial intelligence, in general. My colleagues at The Motley Fool have identified Alphabet as a top driverless-car stock, as well as a top AI stock to buy. I totally agree with their assessments.
If you can't beat them, join them. Investing now seems like a smart way to join the robots before they take millions of jobs in the future.