Confessions of an accidental doom-monger

IT IS ONE of the most widely quoted statistics of recent years. No report or conference presentation on the future of work is complete without it. Think-tanks, consultancies, government agencies and news outlets have pointed to it as evidence of an imminent jobs apocalypse. The finding—that 47% of American jobs are at high risk of automation by the mid-2030s—comes from a paper published in 2013 by two Oxford academics, Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael Osborne. It has since been cited in more than 4,000 other academic articles. Meet Mr Frey, a Swedish economic historian, in person, however, and he seems no prophet of doom. Indeed, Mr 47% turns out not to be gloomy at all. “Lots of people actually think I believe that half of all jobs are going to be automated in a decade or two,” he says, leaving half the population unemployed. That is, Mr Frey stresses, “definitely not what the paper says”.

So what does it say? Its authors modelled the characteristics of 702 occupations and classified them according to their “susceptibility to computerisation”. This classification was, ironically, itself automated—using a machine-learning system built by Mr Osborne, which was trained using 70 hand-labelled examples. After crunching the numbers, the model concluded that occupations accounting for 47% of current American jobs (including those in office...

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