The bottom line is that 45 percent of work activities could be automated using already demonstrated technology.
Our research is ongoing, and in 2016, we will release a detailed report. What follows here are four interim findings elaborating on the core insight that the road ahead is less about automating individual jobs wholesale, than it is about automating the activities within occupations and redefining roles and processes.
1. We structured our analysis around roughly 2,000 individual work activities,5 and assessed the requirements for each of these activities against 18 different capabilities that potentially could be automated.
It’s no longer the case that only routine, codifiable activities are candidates for automation and that activities requiring “tacit” knowledge or experience that is difficult to translate into task specifications are immune to automation.
According to our analysis, fewer than 5 percent of occupations can be entirely automated using current technology. However, about 60 percent of occupations could have 30 percent or more of their constituent activities automated.
2. As roles and processes get redefined, the economic benefits of automation will extend far beyond labor savings. Particularly in the highest-paid occupations, machines can augment human capabilities to a high degree, and amplify the value of expertise by increasing an individual’s work capacity and freeing the employee to focus on work of higher value.
3. A significant percentage of the activities performed by even those in the highest-paid occupations (for example, financial planners, physicians, and senior executives) can be automated by adapting current technology.
4. Capabilities such as creativity and sensing emotions are core to the human experience and also difficult to automate. The amount of time that workers spend on activities requiring these capabilities, though, appears to be surprisingly low. Just 4 percent of the work activities across the US economy require creativity at a median human level of performance. Similarly, only 29 percent of work activities require a median human level of performance in sensing emotion.
These interim findings, emphasizing the clarity brought by looking at automation through the lens of work activities as opposed to jobs, are in no way intended to diminish the pressing challenges and risks that must be understood and managed. Clearly, organizations and governments will need new ways of mitigating the human costs, including job losses and economic inequality, associated with the dislocation that takes place as companies separate activities that can be automated from the individuals who currently perform them. Other concerns center on privacy, as automation increases the amount of data collected and dispersed. The quality and safety risks arising from automated processes and offerings also are largely undefined, while the legal and regulatory implications could be enormous. To take one case: who is responsible if a driverless school bus has an accident?
All this points to new top-management imperatives: keep an eye on the speed and direction of automation, for starters, and then determine where, when, and how much to invest in automation.