MIT Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory
The capabilities of the Atlas robot are demonstrated during a demo at Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory in Boston, Massachusetts.  Photograph by Ann Hermes — AP

‘Highly creative’ professionals won’t lose their jobs to robots, study finds

Apr 22, 2015

Many people are in "robot overlord denial," according to a recent online poll run by jobs board Monster.com. They think computers could not replace them at work. Sadly, most are probably wrong.

University of Oxford researchers Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael Osborne estimated in 2013 that 47% of total U.S. jobs could be automated by 2033. The combination of robotics, automation, artificial intelligence, and machine learning is so powerful that some white collar workers are already being replaced -- and we're talking journalists, lawyers, doctors, and financial analysts, not the person who used to file all the incoming faxes.

But there's hope, at least for some. According to an advanced copy of a new report that U.K. non-profit Nesta sent to Fortune, 21% of US employment requires people to be "highly creative." Of them, 86% (18% of the total workforce) are at low or no risk from automation. In the U.K., 87% of those in creative fields

"Artists, musicians, computer programmers, architects, advertising specialists … there's a very wide range of creative occupations," said report co-author Hasan Bakhshi, director of creative economy at Nesta, to Fortune. Some other types would be financial managers, judges, management consultants, and IT managers. "Those jobs have a very high degree of resistance to automation."

The study is based on the work of Frey and Osborne, who are also co-authors of this new report. The three researchers fed 120 job descriptions from the US Department of Labor into a computer and analyzed them to see which were most likely to require extensive creativity, or the use of imagination or ideas to make something new.

Creativity is one of the three classic bottlenecks to automating work, according to Bakhshi. "Tasks which involve a high degree of human manipulation and human perception -- subtle tasks -- other things being equal will be more difficult to automate," he said. For instance, although goods can be manufactured in a robotic factory, real craft work still "requires the human touch."

So will jobs that need social intelligence, such as your therapist or life insurance agent.

Of course, the degree of creativity matters. Financial journalists who rewrite financial statements are already beginning to be supplanted by software. The more repetitive and dependent on data the work is, the more easily a human can be pushed aside.

In addition, just because certain types of creative occupations can't easily be replaced doesn't mean that their industries won't see disruption. Packing and shipping crafts can be automated, as can could some aspects of the film industry that aren't such things as directing, acting, and design. "These industries are going to be disrupted and are vulnerable," Bakhshi said.

Also, not all these will necessarily provide a financial windfall. The study found an "inverse U-shape" relationship between the probability of an occupation being highly creative and the average income it might deliver. Musicians, actors, dancers, and artists might make relatively little, while people in technical, financial, and legal creative occupations can do quite well. So keeping that creative job may not seem much of a financial blessing in many cases.

Are you in a "creative" role that will be safe from automation? You can find out what these Oxford researchers think by taking their online quiz.

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