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Hype vs. reality: A roundtable discussion on the impact of technology and artificial intelligence on employment

There is nothing new about technology causing the elimination of some jobs; it has been happening since the dawn of civilization. In the past, new technology has eventually contributed to creating jobs — jobs requiring higher levels of skill, education and training. Up until now, machines have been most effective at performing repetitive and mechanical tasks – jobs that are “dirty, dull and dangerous.” Those jobs requiring human judgment, knowledge or interaction were considered to be largely immune to either mechanization or computerization. Recent advancements in computer data analytics and robotic technologies, however, have led some to speculate that this time could be different; that occupations involving cognitive, creative and socially interactive skills could also now be at risk. These concerns have received a great deal of attention in the media lately, in part, as a result of a September, 2013 Oxford University paper titled The Future of Employment: How Susceptible are Jobs to Computerisation? by Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael A. Osborne. Frey and Osborne examine 702 occupations and predicted, which were most, least, and somewhat at risk of being taken over by computers or computer-driven robots within the next two decades. “According to our estimate,” Frey and Osborne write in their report, “47 percent of total U.S. employment is in the high-risk category,” including such occupations as taxi drivers, fast-food counter clerks, paralegals, tax preparers and insurance underwriters, among many others. The 47 percent estimate and the large number of professional and semi-professional jobs on the list have prompted headlines in the media like “How to Keep Your Job When Your Boss Is a Robot” (Bloomberg, March 18, 2014) and “The Future of Jobs: The Onrushing Wave” (the Economist, January 18, 2014). The cover of the Economist featuring the article showed tornados ripping into a white-collar office workspace. Fueling this anxiety, some media pundits claim that education is no longer the sure fix it has historically been to the elimination of jobs by technology – that computers and other machines are on the cusp of becoming so powerful and capable they will completely replace humans in the workplace.