Author: Chris Neiger | September 20, 2018
The effects are already being felt
There’s lots of talk these days of robots and artificial intelligence (AI) software reaching an inflection point where they begin stealing significant jobs away from humans. There are a lot of different timelines on when this will happen, but some of the latest data from the McKinsey Global Institute shows that by 2030 automation could take away up to 30% of the jobs that workers do right now -- a total of about 800 million jobs.
Other studies point to a similar fate for workers. Oxford University researchers Carl Frey and Michael Osborne studied 702 occupations and found that “47% of U.S. workers have a high probability of seeing their jobs automated over the next 20 years.”
To understand the full impact that robots, AI, and automation will have on the job market, let’s take a look at nine jobs and industries that are seeing the effects of these technologies.
1. Long-haul truck drivers
Self-driving trucks haven’t begun killing off long-haul trucking jobs yet, but there’s a general consensus that one of the most useful applications of driverless vehicle technology is for truck driving. Waymo, a subsidiary company of Alphabet (Nasdaq: GOOG) (Nasdaq: GOOG) is testing self-driving trucks to move data center equipment for Google.
Waymo’s trucks use the same artificial intelligence software that runs its driverless car fleet in Arizona, which combines 7 million miles of real-world driving with hundreds of millions of miles of virtual testing to create a sophisticated driving system.
While driverless vehicle technology is just beginning to be tested with the public, recent research from the University of Pennsylvania estimates that 294,000 long-haul truck driving jobs will be lost to autonomous vehicle technology over the next 25 years.
2. Taxi, ride-hailing, and delivery drivers
Anyone who drives people or packages around is also at risk for the same reason that truckers are. Self-driving technology is already being tested extensively by nearly every major automaker and many technology companies, and the first self-driving vehicles are expected to hit the market in 2021. Once they do, sales are expected to grow relatively quickly, with annual autonomous vehicle sales reaching 33 million -- 26% of new car sales -- in 2040.
Because self-driving vehicles will be safer than humans and be able to run continuously, they’ll likely replace many jobs drivers. In fact, autonomous vehicles could eliminate 300,000 jobs in these industries each year once the self-driving cars reach their saturation point, according to Goldman Sachs.
3. Customer service and office assistants
You’ve likely already talked to an automated customer service representative if you’ve called your bank, smartphone provider, or a myriad of other customer service lines recently. Many of these customer service systems eventually hand-off the call to a real human, but tech companies are working on advanced chatbots that do far more than just handle basic information collection.
Earlier this year, Google showed off an advanced AI bot, called Duplex, that’s capable of making phone calls on a person’s behalf, conversing with real humans on the phone, and setting up appointments -- all while having the same voice inflections, pauses, and interactions you’d have with a real person.
The company says, “Google Duplex system is capable of carrying out sophisticated conversations, and it completes the majority of its tasks fully autonomously, without human involvement.”
With advanced AI like this already being developed, more customer service and office assistant jobs may be at risk. In fact, between now and 2030, demand for office workers is expected to fall by 20% in the U.S. due to automation, according to the McKinsey report.
4. Healthcare workers
No, AI and robots aren’t going to put your doctors out of work just yet. But it could make them a lot better at their jobs. A recent experiment conducted by Oxford’s John Radcliffe hospital used a robot to assist an eye doctor in carrying out a basic eye surgery on willing volunteers. The robot allowed the doctor to complete the operation at the same level, or even more efficiently than a human doctor alone.
Bringing robots into the operation room has been happening frequently over the past few years, and back in 2016 robots helped in more than 750,000 operations.
Additionally, doctors are testing the use of AI to help diagnose patients, with promising results. A team of Harvard pathologists recently used AI to help them diagnose breast cancer in patients and found that their accuracy increased from 96% to 99.5% with the help of AI. That small increase means that between 68,000 to 130,000 more women could potentially receive more accurate diagnoses each year.
5. Warehouse workers
The rise of online shopping and the need to fulfill orders and get them delivered quickly has brought about a robotics revolution in warehouses. Unsurprisingly, Amazon (Nasdaq: AMZN) is leading the way in its use of robots. The company has more than 100,000 robots working in its warehouses, helping human workers to pick and sort inventory.
Amazon says its robots don’t take away human jobs, but rather enhance the work that humans are already doing. There’s plenty of room for debate on that claim, but the warehouse industry is certainly showing signs that robots are increasingly doing more online order fulfillment.
For example, the online British grocery store Ocado recently built a warehouse that’s almost entirely automated by robots. The bots help process 65,000 orders every single week and sort and arrange the products in the warehouse, while humans pack and unpack items. The bots can work together or on their own to fulfill orders and have the benefit of never needing to take a break.
6. Assembly line manufacturing
While robotics and automation will cause job losses across many industries, manufacturing has already felt the effects of new technologies. America has 5 million fewer manufacturing jobs right now then it did back in 2000, and much of the evidence points towards automation as the reason.
A Ball State University study published back in 2015 showed that nearly 88% of the manufacturing jobs that were lost between 2000 and 2010 were because of increased efficiency (mainly from automation), with the remaining losses due to trade.
Some research indicates that the losses may not be as severe as the Ball State study claims but the data does at the very least show that adding more automation into assembly lines has a significant negative impact on the amount of manufacturing positions.
7. Retail and customer interaction jobs
Self-checkout registers are fairly commonplace and even automated kiosks for ordering food are becoming more prevalent. McDonald's has been implementing automated kiosks to some of its restaurants since 2015, and the company is expected to have them installed at 14,000 of its locations by 2020.
McDonald's isn’t the only retailer introducing robotic cashiers into its stores, of course. Amazon is experimenting with a cashier-less grocery store, called Amazon Go, where customers can just walk into the store, grab what they want off the shelves, and walk out with their purchases -- without ever having to walk through a checkout line.
The Amazon Go store uses infrared cameras, advanced algorithms, and artificial intelligence to keep track of what customers are picking up and putting in their bags, and then automatically charges them through an app on their phone when they walk out of the store. This is the most extreme example of retail automation, of course, and there’s only one Amazon Go store in the country right now. But it’s yet another example of how companies are using AI and automation to remove physical workers from their jobs.
So how much will this type of technology impact the overall retail space? The McKinsey report says that about 1% of retail and other “customer interaction” jobs could be lost in the coming decades.
It’s easy to think that creative jobs are safe from robots and AI, but machines have already proven that they can handle these tasks as well. Back in 2015, veteran NPR reporter Scott Horsly raced an AI program to write an article on Denny’s quarterly results. Horsly finished his article in an impressive seven minutes, while an AI writing software program, called Wordsmith, completed the task in just two minutes.
Horsly's article was better-written, but the robot’s story was still clear and readable -- and it’s not the only one of its kind. The Washington Post has a writing bot called Heliograf, that was developed in-house at the paper to write updates about the Rio Olympics back in 2016. But Heliograf quickly promoted to writing hundreds of articles on local 2016 elections shortly thereafter.
Writers may not be using losing their jobs because of bots like Heliograf just yet, and some even argue that AI writing programs will allow journalists to focus their attention on investigating stories or writing more important topics. But with Heliograf already performing well, and news organizations constantly looking for additional ways to save money, it’s likely that this is only the beginning for writing bots.
9. Soldiers and pilots
Drones in warfare are nothing new, but many countries are beginning to talk more about using lethal autonomous weapons systems (LAWs) that can make their own decisions.
A meeting on the use of autonomous weapons at the United Nations last month resulted in a move towards more use of autonomous weaponry, according to Popular Mechanics, with the push being backed by several countries, including Russia and the United States.
Already, 30 countries use autonomous weapons and one of the most well-known examples may be Israel’s Harop loitering munition drone. The unmanned aerial vehicle can be controlled by a human, but it also can find targets on its own and eliminate them by dropping out of the sky, ramming itself into them, and then blowing up.
There’s no indication that mass amounts of soldiers and pilots are being replaced by robots just yet, but the move to incorporate more autonomous weapons into warfare is already well underway. Autonomous weaponry has the ability to keep military personnel safe, but some experts are worried that it could have serious negative consequences for how wars are fought as well.
It’s not all doom and gloom
Despite some of the examples here, automation doesn’t have to be all bad. A Deloitte study from a few years ago showed that automation and robotics had killed off 800,000 jobs in the U.K. over a 15-year period. But during that same time, 3.5 million new jobs had been created -- and with higher average wages.
This means that while some jobs are clearly being eliminated because of automation, robots, and AI, there are still opportunities to create new industries and better opportunities for workers. The challenge though is helping workers to transition from jobs that are being replaced. Doing so will likely take additional training and education so that large groups of workers can successfully move into new industries.
John Mackey, CEO of Whole Foods Market, an Amazon subsidiary, is a member of The Motley Fool’s board of directors. Suzanne Frey, an executive at Alphabet, is a member of The Motley Fool’s board of directors. Chris Neiger has no position in any of the stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool owns shares of and recommends Alphabet (A shares), Alphabet (C shares), and Amazon. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy