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Robot-Safe Jobs

June 13, 2022

I remember a cartoon published in the early days of ubiquitous computing in the late 1970s. A business manager is telling one of his employees that he lost his job. The tagline was, "...And the funny thing is, the computer that's replacing you is smaller than the head of a pin." At that time, employee fears of job loss to automation had been happening for at least twenty-five years. This fear was the subject of the 1957 film, Desk Set, starring Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn.[1]

As I wrote in a previous article (ENIAC at 75, June 7, 2021), employees in the film resisted installation of a mainframe computer, EMERAC, an acronym for Electromagnetic Memory and Research Arithmetical Calculator. The EMERAC name was obviously chosen to evoke memories of ENIAC, the first programmable, electronic, general-purpose digital computer. EMERAC's functionality was quite fictional. It could do natural language processing, and it had a database that's equivalent to the Internet of today. In the end, it was revealed that the computer was there to assist the employees, not to replace them.

Eniac vacuum tubes and Maria robot from Metropolis

"Your face looks lovely in the warm glow of the ENIAC vacuum tubes." After upgrades in 1956, ENIAC contained 18,000 vacuum tubes, each with a glowing filament, although some had a metal envelope that blocked the light. (left, a photograph by Bubba73 of a portion of an ENIAC computer on display at Fort Sill Museum, Lawton, Oklahoma. Right, a photograph by Jiuguang Wang of a replica of the character, Maria from Metropolis, at the Robot Hall of Fame. Both images from Wikimedia Commons. Click for larger image.)

Such fears pale in comparison to the idea of a computer's taking control of the world, the plot of the 1970 film, Colossus: The Forbin Project.[2] As technology has advanced, so have our fear of computers, with the present threat being the technological singularity, the future time at which artificially intelligent systems will surpass the capability of humans and self-propagate. At that time, humans will become irrelevant; or, as in the example of the Terminator films, something to be rendered extinct.

The technological singularity will not happen in my lifetime; and, humans are prone to short-term thinking (e.g., global warming). Today's specific fear of computers is the same as it has been for half a century; namely, job loss through automation. Just as the buggy-whip manufacturers of an earlier era needed to diversify in response to the advance of technology in the invention of the automobile, many people are looking to enter careers that are protected from automation. A recent article in Science Robotics investigates the probability that a chosen career is robust against automation.[3-4] The authors refer to the more robust of these as robot-safe.

This blog is a labor of love, and not a source of income. That's fortunate, since a reasonably intelligent agent can compose readable versions of these blog articles using material from the references. In fact, given a topic, the agent can discover its own references. Those articles would lack the interesting anecdotes from my long career in science, but all the important information would be there. Blog authorship is not robot-safe. AI-written sports and business stories have appeared for many years, proving that journalism jobs are not robot-safe.

Roboticists from École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) and economists from the University of Lausanne collaborated on this study.[4] They examined robotic abilities from the scientific and technical literature, compared these to employment and wage statistics, and developed a method to calculate how existing jobs are vulnerable to being performed by machines in the near future.[4] They also found a way to suggest transitions in career that would require the smallest retraining efforts to achieve better resilience from robot takeover.[4] Says Dario Floreano, Director of EPFL's Laboratory of Intelligent System and leader of EPFL's part of the study,
"There are several studies predicting how many jobs will be automated by robots, but they all focus on software robots, such as speech and image recognition, financial robo-advisers, chatbots, and so forth. Furthermore, those predictions wildly oscillate depending on how job requirements and software abilities are assessed. Here, we consider not only artificial intelligence software, but also real intelligent robots that perform physical work and we developed a method for a systematic comparison of human and robotic abilities used in hundreds of jobs."[4]

Their model was aided by the European H2020 Robotic Multi-Annual Roadmap (MAR), an analysis of robotic trends created and updated by experts.[4] The MAR examines robot capabilities in sensing, manipulation, perception, and interaction with humans.[4] There was also information from the research and patent literature, and descriptions of robotic products.[4] The job requirements for occupations were derived from a United States job market database called Occupational Information Network (O*net) that classifies about a thousand occupations and lists the knowledge and skills most crucial to each of them.[4] With such data, the model-building was straightforward.

A physics career is robot-safe

Fellow physicists, rejoice! Our careers are robot-safe.

If you're considering a career change, the suggestion is to become a surgeon with a slightly higher automation index of 0.50.

Yes, surgeons are more easily replaced by robots than physicists.

Resilience to robots, Robots, jobs, and resilience Website, Laboratory of Intelligent Systems, EPFL.[5]

In the ranking of these thousand jobs, physicists had the lowest risk of automation, while butchers and meatpackers had the highest risk.[4] Generally, the jobs of highest automation risk were in food processing, building maintenance, construction, and extraction.[4] The research team then created a method for a person's finding a job that's less susceptible to automation, but close to their skill set, thus making for an easy career transition.[4] This feature is implemented on an interactive website at https://lis2.epfl.ch/resiliencetorobots.[5] For example, materials scientists have an already low automation risk index of 0.57, but it's suggested that they could transition to mathematics with an automation risk index of 0.50.[5]

Automation risk for job categories

Automation risk for job loss for job categories. The points specify the median values. Further statistical information can be found in ref. 3.[3] (Created using Inkscape from data in ref. 3.[3] Click for larger image.)


  1. Desk Set (1957), Walter Lang(1896-1972), Director, on the IMDB Website.
  2. Colossus: The Forbin Project (1970), Joseph Sargent (1925-2014), Director, on the IMDB Website.
  3. Antonio Paolillo, Fabrizio Colella, Nicola Nosengo, Fabrizio Schiano, William Stewart, Davide Zambrano, Isabelle Chappuis, Rafael Lalive, and Dario Floreano, "How to compete with robots by assessing job automation risks and resilient alternatives," Science Robotics, vol. 7, no. 65 (April 13, 2022), DOI: 10.1126/scirobotics.abg5561.
  4. How to compete with robots, École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne Press Release, April 22, 2022. Also here.
  5. Resilience to robots, Robots, jobs, and resilience Website, Laboratory of Intelligent Systems, EPFL.

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