Will you be replaced by a robot? Let’s break it down.

Steve Boese Change, HR, HR Technology, Labor, Steve Boese

If you are at all interested in the currently red-hot and pretty trendy “the robots are coming to take all our jobs, steal our girl/boyfriends, and destroy everything that we love” meme, then you will first want to allow yourself a big chunk of time this week to read The Future of Employment: How Susceptible are Jobs to Computerisation?, a research paper published in the latter part of 2013, by Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael A. Osborne, both of the University of Oxford.

In the paper, (which I am warning you is pretty long and has a fairly ponderous section in the middle that is full of really hard-to-understand equations, at least some of which contain that big ‘sigma’ character), the authors take a really smart and rational approach to estimating the likelihood that for any given type of job, a robot (or some other type of automation technology like a sophisticated computer program or set of algorithms), can replace the job’s functions in the relatively near term.

And before you dismiss this entire topic as not being either personally relevant, (“I am a recruiter or an HR Manager, which is a complex, non-routine job that requires a real person to perform”), or is not relevant to your organization, (if, in your view, it is largely made up of other people like you—so-called “knowledge workers”), I would like to offer just one snippet from the paper that hopefully will grab your attention:

Hence, while technological progress throughout economic history has largely been confined to the mechanisation of manual tasks, requiring physical labour, technological progress in the twenty-first century can be expected to contribute to a wide range of cognitive tasks, which, until now, have largely remained a human domain. Of course, many occupations being affected by these developments are still far from fully computerisable, meaning that the computerisation of some tasks will simply free-up time for human labour to perform other tasks. Nonetheless, the trend is clear: computers increasingly challenge human labour in a wide range of cognitive tasks.

Ok, so let’s assume you were either on board with the seriousness of the robotic threats before, or had been skeptical but have read over the Oxford paper and have now come around. How do you actually know, or at least take an educated guess at the actual threat to what you do… i.e., how can you determine if or when the robots are coming for you?

Well, let’s break it down using the three primary criteria cited in the paper—perception and manipulation task requirements, the need for creative intelligence, and last, the need for social interaction and intelligence on the job. Your task, as you read through these parameters, is to think really honestly about how what you do fits on along the continuum of Easy for a machine to learn and perform ←→ No way a robot could EVER do this in the three categories.

Perception and manipulation – These are physical requirements that call for hand and finger dexterity and the ability to work in small, cramped, and non-standard settings. At least for now, the more complex, subtle, and variable physical actions are required by the job, the harder it is for a robot/machine to perform. The gap between machine capability and human skill in this area is shrinking, just not rapidly enough to threaten certain jobs. But “typing lots of the same kind of data into a computer all day” would not fall into the robots-can’t-do-this category.

Odds that the average HR pro loses to the robots? Pretty low, not because the robots can’t get comfortable in your cubicle, but rather that for the most part, the manual dexterity issues raised here are not primary.

Creative intelligence – This breaks down into two distinct elements really. One, the ability to combine information in new ways or to develop new and novel concepts, objects, or theories. And two, the ability to create something that we would recognize as or call “art.” These are often unusual, clever, and at least in the relevant context, presented as something not previously seen or considered. Mostly, so far, machines are not that good at this yet. So for you, the way to think about this is fairly simple—how often do you actually create something truly new? How often do you combine or adapt the existing ways of doing things in a way that would be recognized as a novel and clever approach? How often, in your context, do you create “art?”

Odds that the average HR pro loses to the robots? I’d say medium to high. Admit it, there are lots and lots of days when you sign off to head home thinking that, well, you really didn’t have any time to think today. Look, I am not saying you never have any new, creative ideas, but if you can honestly say that weeks can go by without you making anything really new or novel, then it stands to reason that the things you are doing can be “learned” by a robot.

Social interaction and intelligence – This falls into a few buckets, as well: things like being aware of other people’s feelings and reactions, bringing people together, negotiating, reconciling differences, persuading, and finally the large spectrum of job functions that require person-to-person interaction and contact, (like caregivers, many service providers like plumbers, and even lawyers and judges). While they are improving and learning, mostly, machines and robots can only respond the way they are programmed, and have not mastered the kinds of nuances needed in this area. So while you are likely an HR or Talent pro, where people—and interacting with them—is your business, consider just how much time you spend actually interacting with them, and how much time you spend avoiding them, (or trying to rig up a way for your computer systems to deal with them on your behalf). Oh, and spending half a day deleting emails does not count as social interaction.

Odds that the average HR pro loses to the robots? I’d say low to medium on this one. A few years ago I would have said really low, as HR was always the job that was completely about interacting with people, assessing how people are best able to work together, and being the “social” conscience of the company, the move and pressure in the last few years for HR to be more like Finance or Operations has raised the odds in the robots favor. The more data-driven and analytical any job becomes, the easier it will be for it to be reduced into a set of calculations and algorithms.

So taken overall, and evaluated along these three areas, it does seem likely that there are some HR/talent gigs that will be really vulnerable to increased automation, (admins of any kind, HR system techs, sourcers, even folks that spend most of their time training people), and ones that, at least for now, probably are relatively safe, (probably heavy employee relations folks, recruiters—especially on the executive end—and HR folks that are truly working on complex workforce strategies and plans). But what might be more interesting and complex than simply examining your own personal role in the context of the automation threat, is to take a broader look at the overall organization where you work, and view the jobs and associated tasks through this kind of a lens. Automation is only going to keep increasing and keep pressuring lots of roles throughout the company, even if it isn’t yours.

Because I suspect even if the robots are not coming for your job just yet, the CEO is probably going to want your help in deciding just who the robots should be coming for.

Going forward, your job as an HR/Talent pro will not be limited to Who is the best person for this job?” It will also include, Do we even need a person to do this job at all?”