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Rise of the machines? New research from McKinsey

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As technology keeps evolving, more and more attention is being paid to the question of whether robots will be taking over our jobs in the near future – and what we will do if and when they do.

Focusing on this issue, McKinsey recently published the results of their research into which sectors and roles are most likely candidates for automation. They analysed over 2,000 work activities for more than 800 occupations in the USA, looking at the amount of time spent on each work activity alongside the technical feasibility of automating them.

The full results of the study won’t be available until early 2017, but they released some of the interim findings last year (you can see them here) and have now made another set of findings public.

In the first set of findings, the research team came to the conclusion that 45% of work activities overall could be automated by technology available now, while 60% of occupations could see 30% of their activities automated.

The reason they focus on work activities rather than occupations is that not all elements of an occupation are easily automated, and this distinction is the crux of any discussion about automation. Where a work activity is predictable and physical, such as packaging products or assembling elements on a production line, automation can be relatively simple. Similarly, predictable interactions such as basic customer service conversations can also be automated easily.

In unpredictable situations however, both physical and intellectual activities become harder to automate. McKinsey mentions forestry, for example, or outdoor animal care as physical tasks that are not easy to predict, while more complex intellectual tasks such as creative thinking are still beyond the reach of any current AI.

The current interim findings therefore divide work activities into three groups – those highly susceptible to automation, those less susceptible, and the least susceptible. Based on this analysis, McKinsey has made predictions about which industries are most likely to see significant automation over the coming years: for example, in technology, media and telecoms, the research predicts that 36% of work activities could be automated, particularly in data processing.

You can interact with the data on their tableau site. It’s well worth having a play around to see whether your sector and which activities in particular are susceptible to automation. And if you want to read some more about the practice of using robots, the FT has a great piece about using robots in the aerospace industry as part of their Farnborough Airshow supplement.