London Campus Event
Gibbs presented his research during an event at Chicago Booth's London campus. The big takeaway? Social skills, creativity, and STEM knowledge will be crucial to the next generation of workers.

Why All Is Not What It Seems in the ‘Robot Apocalypse’

Or, the four characteristics of jobs that will continue to need a human touch in an increasingly automated world, according to professor Michael Gibbs.

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Seventy-five years ago, Chicago Booth launched its inaugural Executive MBA Program, the first of its kind anywhere in the world. It was an historic moment, a bold move embodying The Chicago Approach to business education that empowered students to meet the needs of an ever-evolving world, no matter the technological advances on the horizon. So what better way to mark this momentous anniversary than with a glimpse of the future?

At the London campus, clinical professor of economics Michael Gibbs treated an audience of 200 alumni, students, and business leaders to a master class about the impact of artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics on tomorrow’s labour market—a hot topic for businesses and workers alike.

After all, most of us have read the apocalyptic headlines about robots taking over and supposed mass unemployment brought on by advancing technology. Yet the truth, Gibbs explained, is not so black and white.

London Campus EventInstead, he cited his own research into job characteristics, research that assesses the potential impact of technology on the labour market by first considering the tasks workers perform in their everyday roles. Specifically, he identified four parts of nearly every job: interdependence, multitasking, discretion, and skills, each of which can be ranked high, medium, or low to reveal the level of capability required.

At this point in the research, two job types appear most regularly: jobs registering high for all four characteristics, what Gibbs referred to as “modern”; and ones that register low in each case, known as “classical.”

“Modern jobs tend to involve complex thinking and continuous learning, which are difficult for machines to mimic,” he explained. “Classical jobs feature more repetitive, low-engagement tasks better suited to automation.”

Yet he was also quick to counsel against assuming only the lowest-paid workers will be affected by technological advance.

“In fact, the physical and social skills associated with traditionally low-skill jobs are often too difficult or expensive to automate,” he continued. “Like a waitress’s ability to interpret customer needs on the spot. Meanwhile at the other end of the scale, the critical thinking and creativity required by most high-skill and executive-level jobs are unlikely to be replaced by AI anytime soon.”

In fact, for workers in the top band, technology is far more likely to be friend than foe, augmenting productivity and freeing them from drudge tasks to focus on more interesting and creative ones.

But if it’s not low- or high-skill jobs under threat, why all this talk of an apocalypse? While Gibbs insisted the doomsday headlines are exaggerated, he admitted we’re already seeing a significant impact on midlevel positions, such as clerical staff.

“The labour market is polarising,” he said. “So, while high-skilled workers are becoming more valuable, midskill jobs, like call centre staff and office administrators, are increasingly being performed by machines. Rather than upskill, which is very hard midway through your career, people with what were previously considered ‘good jobs’ are having to seek low-skill, low-paid work instead.”

And the social, ethical, and political ramifications of this? “All potentially huge,” acknowledged Gibbs.

“But that’s a whole master class in itself! Suffice to say, though, if I were a parent or policymaker, I’d be advising the next generation to focus on studying STEM, joining clubs to hone their social skills, and training themselves to be creative,” Gibbs said. “This combination will give them the best chance to thrive in the future labour market.”

A case of a skills evolution not revolution then, despite some of the alarming figures out there.

“The thing to remember is that every job is a bundle of tasks, some better suited to humans, some to machines,” Gibbs explained. “The rise of AI and robotics means jobs are changing, not necessarily becoming obsolete. Looking at it that way, it’s not nearly so scary.”

The Takeaways

“I moved into tech after graduating from Booth and I do a lot of work with clients in the field of AI, especially task-oriented machine learning. It was fascinating to hear an economist’s view on the impact of technology on labour market trends at a more macro level.” —Shail Ghaey, ’15

“I work in finance and clearly AI is going to have a big impact on the industry, especially when it comes to aspects like financial modelling. The really fascinating bit, though, is how businesses and society handle the transition to the AI era. It feels as if we’re at a turning point.” —Angelo Morganti, ’98

“We can’t just look at AI from a technology innovation perspective. If it’s going to become as mainstream as everyone predicts, there’s a big ethical question to answer too. Namely, who is going to set the rules of engagement—and do we trust them to do it properly? It was very interesting to hear Professor Gibbs’s views on what this all means for the labour market.” —Gireesh Gaonkar, ’14 (EXP-19)

—By Alex Eeles
March 8, 2018