Where today’s tech can, and can’t, replace humans

This morning, McKinsey & Co. is releasing a new look at the impact automation is likely to have across various sectors of the economy and, ultimately, the workplace. Its findings are based on analysis of 2,000-plus work activities across more than 800 occupations and includes data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The good news, says the report, is that automation will “eliminate very few occupations entirely in the next decade.” It adds that automation will eventually affect “portions of almost all jobs to a greater or lesser degree.”

Whether you see this as a good or bad thing could depend on how much of your job involves physical activity or operating machinery.

For example, if even current technologies were broadly adopted, says McKinsey, fully 78 percent of “predictable physical activities” across manufacturing, retailing, and food service and accommodations could be automated. The study notes that working on an assembly line is a “highly predictable” physical activity, whereas forestry or raising outdoor animals is much less so. Either way, as tech grows more advanced, expect that percentage to rise.

What else could be far more automated if current tech was adopted more widely? Plenty of so-called white collar occupations, particularly those that involve collecting and processing data. And it’s not just entry level workers who will be impacted, notes McKinsey. For example, it notes that “stock traders and investment bankers live off their wits, yet about 50 percent of the overall time [in their field] is devoted to collecting and processing data . . .”

Ditto insurance sales agents. McKinsey’s estimate for how much of these jobs could be automated: about 43 percent of workers’ time.

Worth keeping in mind, of course, is that while certain aspects of work can be automated, many jobs will always require some human contact, as with nursing.

Also, automation doesn’t always mean job displacement. The McKinsey study notes that bar-code scanners and point-of-sale systems in the U.S. in the 1980s reduced labor costs per store by an estimated 4.5 percent and the cost of the groceries by 1.4 percent. But cashiers were still needed and in fact, their employment grew at an average rate of more than 2 percent between 1980 and 2013.

Still, if you’re not keen on the idea of your work being automated (and we are with you on this), it’s worth noting that the hardest activities to automate — with current tech anyway — involve managing and developing people (McKinsey puts the “automation potential” here at 9 percent), or activities that require decision-making, planning, or creative work (18 percent).

While computers are already very good at executing on well-defined activities, they don’t have common sense and they’re not (yet) great at interpreting results. In fact, to stay relevant and working long into the future, your best bet may be a career in healthcare or education.

Much more of the study is here if you want to see it yourself.