Automation is increasingly making its way into the workplace, raising concerns among employees about the ways technology will change their jobs—or eliminate them entirely. A June 2019 report by Oxford Economics predicts that 8.5% of the world’s manufacturing positions alone—some 20 million jobs—will be displaced by robots by 2030.
But that’s the wrong way to think about automation and jobs, says Tom Mitchell, professor and interim dean of Pittsburgh-based Carnegie Mellon University’s School of Computer Science. Instead, you should look at the tasks involved in your job and evaluate how easily those tasks can be automated.
“Some people have a single task job, like toll booth [operators],” he says. “Those people are in trouble because their job is going to be automated.” That’s bad news for them, of course, but what does it mean for you?
Tasks that are at risk
Some tasks aren’t easy to evaluate. A 2013 paper, “The Future of Employment: How Susceptible are Jobs to Computerisation?” found that roughly 47% of jobs were at high risk of being automated with advances in artificial intelligence.
Carl Benedikt Frey, Ph.D., co-author of that paper and author of The Technology Trap: Capital, Labor, and Power in the Age of Automation says predictions around automation’s impact have become very polarized: Either you believe that the robots are coming for many jobs—leaving many with no employment—or you believe it’s going to change the nature of work.
“But that also means that lots of people are probably going to lose their jobs because their skillsets are becoming redundant even as the nature of work changes,” he adds.
This isn’t some futuristic hypothetical. Michael Chui, Ph.D., a partner at McKinsey Global Institute (MGI), says roughly half of the tasks people perform at work could theoretically be done by technology that exists today.
And it’s not just low-income workers whose jobs will change. Chui and his team estimate that roughly six out of 10 jobs are made up of 30% or more tasks that can be automated. CEOs, financial advisors, insurance agents, and others all fall into this category.
Regardless of their title, those whose jobs will be transformed by technology care little about the semantics of automation. Even if technology won’t leave them entirely unemployed, they still need to keep abreast of how their jobs will change—and when.
Predicting the rate of change
While it’s difficult to accurately pinpoint a specific window of when automation will encroach workers’ jobs, there are some good indicators of what’s coming, as well as some obstacles that can slow down the process.
One of the first indicators is the type of tasks that make up your job. MGI finds that predictable physical work, data processing, and data automation are all highly susceptible to automation. But their research also shows it’s tougher to find effective technology solutions for other roles, like unpredictable physical work, interactions with stakeholders, applying expertise, and managing others. So, while chatbots may be able to answer basic questions, and robots may be able to pick items out of a warehouse for packing, it’s safe to assume that construction, forestry work, or raising outdoor animals likely aren’t at risk any time soon.
Chui says that automation develops and is adopted slowly, but comes on fast once it’s hit the mainstream. “For any technology in the past few decades, the time between commercial availability—say that there’s an actual positive business case—and the plateau in adoption of this technology across the economy, is roughly one to three decades,” he says. “We model it out as eight to 28 years.”
Sometimes, you may be even be part of the process. Accenture involves its own employees and those of its clients in identifying key tasks to be automated. For example, Accenture’s operations department holds hack-a-thons at its Knoxville, Tennessee center. Once a month, usually after work hours on a Friday, employees can stay for a pizza dinner and meet with AI specialists and data scientists to figure out how to address problems with automation solutions.
According to Debbie Polishook, group chief executive at Accenture Operations, employees aren’t afraid to automate parts of their jobs because of leadership encouraging them to find ways to add more value and do more interesting work. This alleviates fears that their roles will be eliminated. “Do I see a day when everything is 100% automated with no supervision, no additional training required? I really don’t see a day where that’s true for every single process in the workplace,” she says.
Polishook’s team also works with clients, using technology tools to automate work processes. Accenture’s employees oversee A.I.-powered tools that monitor how clients’ employees work. The process is transparent—permission is granted by the client and employees know they’re being monitored, Polishook says. Accenture’s A.I. and technology specialists identify areas that could be automated, consulting employees along the way. Employees may even be enlisted to help “train” the A.I. that will automate their work, mapping processes and setting outcome standards.
Barriers to automation
Beyond the challenges of developing and training the technology to work properly, a number of barriers typically stand in the way of widespread adoption, Chui says. Cost is one. Even when the process has been identified and there’s a business case for automating it, most new technology has a relatively high price tag, he says.
“People worry about two million truck drivers in the U.S.,” Chui says. Even if the technology was ready to deploy and there was a positive business case for them, he estimates it would cost hundreds of billions of dollars to replace every truck in the U.S. That kind of cost is a big barrier.
Then, there’s good, old-fashioned resistance to technological change. Sure, autonomous trucks may be a great solution in many ways. But not everyone is comfortable with the thought of vehicles without drivers barreling down the road at 70 miles per hour.
Mitchell points to the existence of technology to automate many tasks in fast food restaurants. “The truth is, I still like interacting with humans,” he says. “I don’t think we know how much of the value that we’re paying for in any given, say, retail outlet, [is in the interaction]. How much customer resistance would there be to dealing with full automation?”
He adds that there will be a long path of partial automation in many sectors. So, paying attention to developments in your sector and the types of technology being developed is essential to predicting how and when your job will change.
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