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AI to take fewer jobs than feared, says OECD

April 4, 2018

Artificial intelligence is likely to destroy significantly fewer jobs than previously suggested, an OECD study says. But the report finds that teenagers may have a reason to be wary of the onslaught of robots.

Participants at Intel's Artificial Intelligence (AI) Day stand in front of a poster during the event in the Indian city of Bangalore
Image: Getty Images/AFP/M. Kiran

Robots are expected to replace significantly fewer workers than previously thought, shows a  study by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).

It concluded that 14 percent of jobs in OECD countries were at a "high risk of being automated." Earlier studies suggested that AI would destroy nearly half the jobs.

The risk of automation is highly concentrated on low-skilled jobs such as cleaners, food preparers, assemblers and agricultural laborers.

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The report found that most jobs will be difficult to automate as they require the ability to effectively negotiate complex social relationships, including caring for others or recognizing cultural sensitivities or the ability to carry out physical tasks in an unstructured work environment.

A graphic showing shares of jobs at risk of automation

The new study, unlike previous studies, took into consideration the differences between jobs with the same title.

"The main difference is that the study focuses on individual tasks and not the occupation," Glenda Quintini, one of the two authors of the study, told DW.

Quintini gives the example of the difference between a mechanic working in his own shop and a mechanic working in a large factory.

"They are in the same occupation but perform different tasks," she said, adding that the former may be less vulnerable to automation than the latter.

German jobs at greater risk

Jobs in English-speaking countries, Scandinavian countries and the Netherlands were less likely to be automated than those in eastern and southern Europe, as well as Germany, Chile and Japan, the study found.

Quintini says higher vulnerability to automation is not only because countries such as Germany, where AI poses a threat to 18 percent jobs, have bigger manufacturing sectors but also because of the difference in tasks performed by workers within similar occupations.

"A worker in Norway, who faces extremely low risk, is likely to perform jobs that have already adapted to changing technologies and require more social and cognitive intelligence and creativity as opposed to one in Germany," Quintini said.

The report, however, cites Germany as an example to show how "requalification" could support the shift from a more vulnerable job to a lesser one.

"In Germany, where nearly 40 percent of all employees have undergone at least one occupational requalification in their career, the second qualification is toward occupations with systematically lower risk of automation than the first one," the report said.

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Bleak forecast for teen jobs

Robots are likely to pose the biggest threat to teenagers, the study finds.

Most teenagers today take up jobs as laborers, sales personnel, waiters and helpers — jobs which are more likely to be automated.

"The warnings in some developed countries that teen jobs have been harder to come by in recent years should be taken seriously and studied in the context of job automation," Quintini and her co-author, Ljubica Nedelkoska, wrote in the report.

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Education reduces risk

Quintini says while the proportion of jobs at risk is far lower than previously suggested, it is still too large a number — 66 million workers in 32 countries covered by the study — to be ignored.

A further 32 percent of jobs are likely to witness significant changes, requiring workers and companies to adjust.

The occupations most at risk of being automated are those which require just basic to low level of education.

Quintini stresses that governments need to strengthen their adult education programs to help those likely to be affected better adapt to changes in job requirements.

"Job creation is always going to be stronger than job destruction," Quintini said. "But this is about safeguarding those workers who face losing their jobs and may not be skilled enough to take up the new jobs that will be generated."

Ashutosh Pandey
Ashutosh Pandey Business editor with a focus on international trade, financial markets and the energy sector.@ashutoshpande85