If you've been told you have weak 'interpersonal skills,' then you should be terrified by the robot workforce

Robots are coming for our jobs. But it will be ages before they take jobs you think can only be done by humans, right? Because, humans possess certain unique skills like “interpersonal skills.”

Well, it’s not that simple. The robots might be coming for your job, even if you think it seems safe.

Robots face the “interpersonal skills” hurdle

At last year’s Jackson Hole conference of economists and central bankers, MIT economics professor and expert on technology’s effects on the labour market David Autor made the argument that several jobs are probably not going to be automatable over the next few decades — namely, jobs in which “routine tasks are too intertwined with those requiring interpersonal and other human skills to be easily replaced.”

This is consistent with the seminal recent paper on automation and the future of the labour force by Carl Frey and Michael Osbourne, 2013’s “The Future of Employment.” Frey and Osbourne used data from the Bureau of Labour Statistics’ O*NET database, which includes a huge array of characteristics of various occupations. They identified jobs that they deemed to be unlikely to be automated, based on how much those jobs involve difficult to automate characteristics like perception, fine motor skills, creativity, and social aptitude.

On a broad scale, they found that several management, STEM, education, and medical jobs were safe from the robots, while many service, sales, and administrative jobs are at risk:

On a finer level, among the least likely jobs to be automated are those that do in fact involve a fair amount of cognitive skill along with human interaction: Occupational therapists, surgeons, choreographers, pre-school teachers, and clergy are among the professions for which Frey and Osbourne found a less than 1% chance of automation.

But there are plenty of humans who are failing to leverage their advantage over the robots

It might be a mistake for the kinds of workers mentioned above to get too complacent.

On Friday, CEO of Ritholtz Wealth Management Josh Brown tweeted out the observation that “To replace a human worker, a robot doesn’t have to be perfect – it just has to make fewer mistakes than people do, a very low hurdle.”

Most of us have called a computerised customer service line and been frustrated at the machine’s inability to understand what we were saying. Despite that imperfection, automated phone help lines are still very common.

This gets even worse when we consider the interpersonal skills that are assumed to be the great bulwark against automation. An April New York Fed survey found that 51% of manufacturing employers and 38% of business leaders had difficulty in finding workers with these skills. The survey also showed that 57% of manufacturers and 34% of business leaders had difficulty in finding punctual and reliable workers:

While the robots of the near future might not be as good at combining cognitive and interpersonal skills as most humans, they might still be good enough for employers, and they will definitely be at work on time.

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