A new OECD study on automation offers a dose of reality to the ‘humans vs machines’ narrative

Thursday 12 April 2018


If there’s one thing we should all have learnt from the 21st Century so far, it’s that sometimes the experts get it wrong.

In 2013, a now-infamous paper by Oxford academics Carl Frey and Michael Osborne forecast that about 47% of jobs in the US in 2010 and 35% in the UK were at “high risk” of being automated over the following 20 years. The study was hugely influential, and those blockbuster numbers have been widely cited in – and have perhaps even distorted – discussions concerning AI and automation ever since.

But a new report from the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) has put a dampener on the hyperbole. Making the same forecasts as Frey and Osborne did in 2013, the OECD has put the US figure at about 10% and the UK figure at 12%.

The endurance of human skills

In fact, one of the main reasons that OECD’s numbers differ so dramatically from the 2013 study is that it realises that while certain aspects of some jobs are highly automatable, other parts of those jobs will continue to require specifically human skills.

So it is for the types of cases in which Rainbird is deployed. Rainbird allows a company’s employees to focus on the human aspects of their jobs. In a law firm – Taylor Wessing, for example – Rainbird can automate the otherwise manual and time-consuming process of sifting through legislation to discern the best legal options for clients, so that the lawyers themselves can focus on providing their clients with quality service.

Sure enough, last year an Oxford Economics study actually reneged on the earlier study from the same institution, stating that “paradoxically, as technology becomes more powerful and capable, there will be an accompanying rise in demand for ‘human skills’ alongside digital ones.” Their analysis finds that by 2027 32% of the overall skills gap will be in skills that are inherently human – communication, perceptiveness, mentoring, and so on.

Automation to raise performance levels

In many of the industries in which automation is becoming commonplace, new technology is a necessity to cope with digitisation, rather than an economic luxury that replaces people. Take security: transaction rates are increasing, hacker threats are accelerating, and IT security professionals are overloaded as a result. When an international credit card provider recently approached Rainbird to improve their fraud detection, it wasn’t with the intention of replacing their staff: it was to help process almost half a million transactions a minute while reducing false positives, so that their live agents could focus on offering customers the best possible interactions.

The future of business remains human, which is something the headlines often overlook. Tools like Rainbird will elevate the way people do their jobs, rather than simply take those jobs away. Unfortunately, it’s the doom and gloom that sells – but when you look beyond the hyperbolic numbers (Frey and Osborne’s 35%), the reality (the OECD’s 12%) is cause for far more optimism than mainstream debate suggests.