What will happen when computers can handle most white-collar jobs?

by Grace

Computers may soon be able to do white-collar jobs meant for college graduates.

Noriko Arai of the Todai Robot Project explains how the future is shaping up.

… a machine should be capable, with appropriate programming, of doing many — perhaps most — jobs now done by university graduates.

With the development of artificial intelligence, computers are starting to crack human skills like information summarization and language processing….

How would college graduates be affected by this technological evolution?

There is a significant danger, Ms. Arai says, that the widespread adoption of artificial intelligence, if not well managed, could lead to a radical restructuring of economic activity and the job market, outpacing the ability of social and education systems to adjust.

Intelligent machines could be used to replace expensive human resources, potentially undermining the economic value of much vocational education, Ms. Arai said.

“Educational investment will not be attractive to those without unique skills,” she said. Graduates, she noted, need to earn a return on their investment in training: “But instead they will lose jobs, replaced by information simulation. They will stay uneducated.”

In such a scenario, high-salary jobs would remain for those equipped with problem-solving skills, she predicted. But many common tasks now done by college graduates might vanish.

Mostly good or mostly bad?

…  A recent study published by the Program on the Impacts of Future Technology, at Oxford University’s Oxford Martin School, predicted that nearly half of all jobs in the United States could be replaced by computers over the next two decades.

Some researchers disagree. Kazumasa Oguro, professor of economics at Hosei University in Tokyo, argues that smart machines should increase employment. “Most economists believe in the principle of comparative advantage,” he said. “Smart machines would help create 20 percent new white-collar jobs because they expand the economy. That’s comparative advantage.”

Others are less sanguine. Noriyuki Yanagawa, professor of economics at Tokyo University, says that Japan, with its large service sector, is particularly vulnerable.

“A.I. will change the labor demand drastically and quickly,” he said. “For many workers, adjusting to the drastic change will be extremely difficult.”

Smart machines will give companies “the opportunity to automate many tasks, redesign jobs, and do things never before possible even with the best human work forces,” according to a report this year by the business consulting firm McKinsey.

Many business leaders dismiss a takeover by machines as “futurist fantasy”.

… Gartner’s 2013 chief executive survey, published in April, found that 60 percent of executives surveyed dismissed as “‘futurist fantasy” the possibility that smart machines could displace many white-collar employees within 15 years.

“Most business and thought leaders underestimate the potential of smart machines to take over millions of middle-class jobs in the coming decades,” Kenneth Brant, research director at Gartner, told a conference in October: “Job destruction will happen at a faster pace, with machine-driven job elimination overwhelming the market’s ability to create valuable new ones.”

Will these changes create a future of leisure and “self-realization”?

Optimists say this could lead to the ultimate elimination of work — an “Athens without the slaves” — and a possible boom for less vocational-style education. Mr. Brant’s hope is that such disruption might lead to a system where individuals are paid a citizen stipend and be free for education and self-realization.

“This optimistic scenario I call Homo Ludens, or ‘Man, the Player,’ because maybe we will not be the smartest thing on the planet after all,” he said. “Maybe our destiny is to create the smartest thing on the planet and use it to follow a course of self-actualization.”

It sounds too good to be true.  Although the concept of a future as an “Athens without the slaves” has its appeal, it sounds too fantastic to believe.  I wonder what will happen to the segment of the population that lacks the highest level of problem-solving skills.


Michael Fitzpatrick, “Computers Jump to the Head of the Class”, New York Times, December 29, 2013.

6 Responses to “What will happen when computers can handle most white-collar jobs?”

  1. I agree that computers are a very disruptive force in the economy, but the idea of computers “taking over” white collar jobs is a fantasy. Computers are just not that good on their own. What DOES happen is that with the aid of computer software, many tasks are migrating from something that a pro does to a do-it-yourself task. A classic example is what happened to travel agents. They no longer do routine flight booking, which was once their bread and butter. But computers haven’t taken over that task. Instead, we do it ourselves, with the aid of computer applications (and quite frankly, we spend far more on this task than we did back in the travel agent days). Another example – we check ourselves out at the supermarket now. The computer application and hardware helps us do it, but we are doing it. It is weirdly counter to what the economists always tell us – instead of tasks being taken over by specialists who can do it more quickly and cheaper, we are moving back to a do-it-yourself economy, like the old farms where people made their own jam and clothing.


  2. “Computers are just not that good on their own.”

    Not yet.

    The examples of travel agents and grocery checkers are not necessarily white collar jobs, but lawyers, writers, translators have already felt the displacement caused by technology. Currently the role of humans in all this is to apply a higher order of thinking to the job, but it does seem that advances in artificial intelligence are squeezing the necessary skill level higher and higher.


  3. But it is still the do-it-yourself thing. Lawyers are being displaced not by automated lawyers, but by software that allows us to write our own wills and other documents. CPAs feel the pinch because lots of people use TurboTax in ever-more-complex situations. Translators? Well, if you have ever had to rely a lot on Google Translate (as I am right now while trying to navigate Dutch campground websites), you will know that an awful lot of human power has to go into making sense of the result.


  4. Actually lawyers are being replaced by search engines—a lot of law work used to consist of reading 1000s of pages of memos and other business detritus in the pursuit of lawsuits. Now the volume has gone way up, but keyword searches are used with a lot fewer human beings involved.

    The do-it-yourself software has reduced the need for some of the routine contract writing and tax form filling, but not by all that much yet.


  5. Someone I know who interned at a law firm spent a lot of time reading through documents as part of building info for cases, but he told me he knew this particular firm was a bit behind in their use of technology for the same purpose. So even though law clients may not be in do-it-yourself situations, technology is replacing bodies within their lawyers’ offices.

    Similarly with translation, which is a function in many types of business. The end client is not handling this function directly, but companies are taking advantage of technology to cut down on the number of employees needed for this task. Yes, human translators are still needed, but not as many.



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