As the advancement of technology continues to rise, so do concerns about automation soon taking our jobs.
Recent data from McKinsey & Company projects that up to 800 million global workers could be replaced by robots by 2030. For the most part, the report found that blue collar jobs, such as machine operating and fast food preparing, are especially susceptible to disruption.
But a new study published by the Brookings Institution says that might not be the case. The report takes a closer look at jobs that are the most exposed to artificial intelligence (AI), a subset of automation where machines learn to use judgment and logic to complete tasks — and to what degree.
For the study, Stanford University doctoral candidate Michael Webb analyzed the overlap between more than 16,000 AI-related patents and more than 800 job descriptions and found that highly-educated, well-paid workers may be heavily affected by the spread of AI.
Workers who hold a bachelor's degree, for example, would be exposed to AI over five times more than those with only a high school degree. That's because AI is especially good at completing tasks that require planning, learning, reasoning, problem-solving and predicting — most of which are skills required for white collar jobs.
Other forms of automation, namely in robotics and software, are likely to impact the physical and routine work of traditionally blue-collar jobs. But Mark Muro, a senior fellow and policy director at Brookings and co-author of the report, said it's important to note that exposure to AI isn't necessarily good or bad.
"We make no claim that these involvements with AI implies displacement of work or a threat to the job," Muro told CNBC Make It. "Really, what we're mapping is occupations that will be deeply involved with AI, but we're not mapping which jobs will be threatened."
High-paying jobs will have some of the highest exposure to AI
According to Brookings, the jobs below face some of the highest exposure to AI in the near future:
- Chemical engineers (median salary: $104,910 per year)
- Political scientists (median salary: $117,570 per year)
- Nuclear technicians (median salary: $79,140 per year)
- Physicists (median salary: $120,950 per year)
- Occupational therapists (median salary: $84,270 per year)
- Gas plant operators (median salary: $83,020 per year)
- Administrative law judges, adjudicators and hearing officers (median salary: $94,790 per year)
(Median salaries listed above are based on data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics)
Well-paid managers, supervisors and analysts may also be heavily impacted by AI.
"AI is good at tasks that involve judgment and optimization, which tend to be done by higher-skilled workers," Webb told CNBC Make It. "So if you're optimizing ads as an online marketer or a radiologist interpreting medical scans, all of these things take a long time for humans to be good at them. But when it comes to algorithms, once you have the right training data, they tend to be better than humans."
Workers in jobs with high potential of exposure, "are going to have to adapt more," he added. "People good at adapting may thrive from that — and AI might increase productivity and wages, and it could be good for them."
A health-care professional who uses AI to interpret patient data, for example, may have more time to apply those findings to patients and do research on medical advancements.
What workers and employers can do now
"We see there are a small number of occupations where a large number of tasks are suitable for machine learning," Martin Fleming, chief economist at IBM, told CNBC Make It. "But there are a large number of occupations where a small number of tasks are suitable for machine learning."
In short, "the thought that robots are stealing our jobs is nonsense," he said.
Anima Anandkumar, director of machine learning research at Nvidia, a maker of graphics processing units, said workers should evaluate the future of their own roles by asking three questions: Is my job fairly repetitive? Are there well-defined objectives to evaluate my job? Is there a large amount of data accessible to train an AI system?
If the answer to all three of these questions is yes, Anandkumar says AI exposure is likely and suggests workers should aim for jobs that require more creativity and human intuition. "This doesn't necessarily mean an entire career change. For instance, for lawyers and accountants, there are aspects of the job that require human interaction, collaboration, high-level strategy, and creativity. These will be more valuable in future."
An effort to adopt soft skills, as well advanced technology skills, is also crucial. Obed Louissaint, head of talent at IBM, said that employers should consider redesigning job roles with a strong focus on the skills required to complete the job not just today, but also later on as AI continues to advance.
A candidate with a strong growth mindset, for example, may be more willing and able to learn new skills that future jobs in their field might require.
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