Could you really lose your job to a robot?

Time to impact

A recent report has stated that a “net loss of 5.1 million jobs over the next five years, in 15 leading countries, is expected.” Should YOU be worried?

While popular culture reflects our fascination with the concept of artificial intelligence (AI) machines integrating with society and the possible impacts this will have on the world, it seems that a robotic workforce may become a reality much sooner than we thought.

Trends reported by the World Economic Forum (WEF) in January suggest that we have until 2020 to prepare to compete with artificially intelligent job seekers.

Titled the ‘Future of Jobs’, the WEF reprt revealed some possibly concerning information: Advanced robotics, self-driving cars, artificial intelligence and ‘machine learning’ will soon effect world economies, and our jobs. The biggest take away is the statement that a “net loss of 5.1 million jobs over the next five years is expected.” The study includes 15 leading economies, and South Africa is one of them.

The top trends impacting our local industries are: processing power, big data, the changing nature of work and the affect of the middle class in emerging markets. The effects of these developments are expected to be felt as soon as 2017, so employees have little time to develop the necessary skills to roll with the changes.

Threats of robotic job seekers are not new

No, this is not the first time an alarming report has warned that robots will replace us all. But history shows that increased automation has not driven us out of our jobs, yet.

Yes, less-skilled workers are the hardest hit when factories and businesses automate processes, and massive changes are felt by society when technology becomes more accessible, but essentially automation brings about positive changes too. 

…automation makes us better off collectively by making some of us worse off - Daniel Akst

But the WEF certainly thinks it’s a topic worthy of current discussion: The Davos Annual Meeting was held under the theme “Mastering the Fourth Industrial Revolution” which refers to developments in artificial intelligence and machine-learning, robotics, genetics and biotechnology, nanotechnology and 3-D printing.  

High on the agenda was the topic of how these developments will affect us. Just like the three previous Industrial Revolutions (steam, mass production and information technology) caused huge upheavals to society, the Fourth Industrial Revolution will pose companies, workers, governments and societies with many new and unprecedented challenges, as automation brings increasingly speedy cycles of innovation. 

Key challenges faced by businesses and individuals

- A net loss of 5.1 million jobs over the next five years in 15 leading countries is expected.

- As many as 2 million new positions will become available, internationally.

- The majority of projected losses are expected to fall in the office and administrative sectors as AI machines take over computerisable tasks.

- The changes will affect female and male workers differently, transforming the current gender gap in multiple industries.

- Business models will need to change and adapt, in all industries, and there will be major disruptions to labour markets.

- New categories of jobs will emerge, in some instances eliminating existing job roles.

- The skill sets required will change in most industries and transform how and where people work.

- More than a third of the skills that will be most desirable by 2020 aren't even considered important today.

- Social skills such as persuasion and emotional intelligence will be in higher demand.

- Creativity, active listening and critical thinking will be the most desired skills.

Computers are becoming capable of cognitive tasks

According to a comprehensive study titled The Future of Jobs: How susceptible jobs are to computerisation?, it is not only routine jobs that are at stake: a wide range of non-routine cognitive tasks are becoming computerisable.

These positions include tasks performed by paralegals, CCTV operators, clinical staff responsible for chronic care, recruiters, human resources staff, construction workers and many more.

The trend is clear: computers increasingly challenge human labour in a wide range of cognitive tasks.”

So, yes... you could lose your job to a robot. But there is hope. 

Robots still lack certain crucial human skills

The study found that robots are no good at performing tasks which require perception and manipulation, creative intelligence and social intelligence. It seems that robotic workers will mainly replace low-skill and low-wage jobs in the near future, while high-skill and high-wage occupations are the least susceptible to job losses.

Jobs that rank high in intelligence, negotiation and helping others will be the hardest to replace with an AI. 

Professionals with jobs in the engineering and science industries as well as those holding positions such as financial managers, marriage therapists, police officers, social workers, education administrators and fine artists, who require a high degree of creative and/or social intelligence, are the least likely to be replaced by robots. technology races ahead, low-skill workers will reallocate to tasks that are non-susceptible to computerisation. To win workers will have to acquire creative and social skills.

It’s not just individual professionals who need to brace themselves for these changes: businesses are advised to adopt strategies that ensure the best outcomes for their workforce, which include investing in re-skilling existing employees, recruiting and supporting female talent, devising flexible job roles and attracting foreign talent. 

So how likely are you to be replaced by an AI?

Based on the findings of Oxford University's The Future of Employment paper, writers at created a tool which allows you to select from a range of job roles within various professions to calculate the chance of your job becoming automated enough for a robot to take over.

Some aspects of a job are easier to automate than others, prompting the researchers to ask four key questions, and score jobs according to the answers:  

Do you need to come up with clever solutions?

Are you required to personally help others?

Does your job require you to squeeze into small spaces?

Does your job require negotiation?

If you’d like to know if you’re at risk of being replaced by a robot, check out the interactive guide here: Will your job be around in the future? If the answer for your role isn’t one you like, find a new job in a profession that is sure to outlast the Fourth Industrial Revolution…

Written by Elizabeth Mamacos: Elizabeth currently serves as Editor at Careers24. She oversees a team of writers who specialise in career advice, and has a long history of both digital and print journalism. Elizabeth spends her free time studying and running after her kids. If you would like to get in touch, email her at   


The Future of Jobs

The Future of Employment: How Susceptible Are Jobs to Computerisation?