Jonathan Downing, originally from Lurgan, is a researcher at the University of Oxford in his final year of a DPhil in Machine Learning.
His research foretells the story of automation and its impact on jobs across our economy. In 2013, Oxford Prof Michael Osborne wrote a report with Dr Carl Frey – predicting the future of employment in 2050 – that became a seminal paper on automation. It famously said that 47% of US occupations would be automated by 2050.
Now, Jonathan is focusing specifically on future demand. He tells me that people will need to be creative, lifelong learners in the economy of the future.
“Technological change is one of the drivers to changing employment – some other drivers are globalisation, demographics, rising inequality, environmental sustainability and political inequality,” Jonathan said.
His work with Nesta and Pearson has been adopted as a guiding document for their future educational policy.
What does the new report entail?
Jonathan explained, “We studied 1,000 different occupations in the US and UK – to find out the future skills needed for those economies.”
“It’s founded on the knowledge of experts – from many different industries – who attended workshop sessions in Boston and London. They answered questions on 30 occupations – do you think this occupation will increase in demand or decrease?”
“We used machine learning to dig in deeper into the data, finding patterns, and identifying some of the top and bottom skills.”
What are some of the most interesting findings?
The headline finding was that 21% of jobs in the UK are thought to have lower demand in the future, 8% will have higher demand, and 70% are uncertain.
“We found that food preparation and hospitality jobs, which include chefs and cooks will increase in the future – these require a high degree of creativity,” said Jonathan.
“There’s something called skills complementarity – for a current occupation what skills do we invest that most improves the future demand for that occupation?” he said.
“People need to get accustomed to reskilling.”
“One example is the administrative occupations, which may be automatable. These jobs require oral expression and oral analysis – complementary skills could be judgement and decision making, and the application of scientific rules,” said Jonathan.
While a secretarial role may be at risk of automation, the people doing that job are known to have strong fluency of ideas (the skill of trying to create as many ideas as quickly as possible).
Future professions we don’t yet have
Jonathan said, “We looked at 120 different skills – we were able to search for different occupations that aren’t in existence currently. These were conceptualised jobs.”
The Oxford researchers found two new hypothetical occupations with high demand. The highest valued skills in these new jobs are:
“Putting aside the fear of robots”
Jonathan gave an example of a cleaner looking for dust on floors, couches and furniture. He says human-in-the-loop technology is in its infancy.
“It’s incredibly hard to automate that – each new environment has new objects with different dynamics and rules. This is where robots struggle. As a cleaner, the ability to understand, interact and adapt to the environment is key – currently a robot wouldn’t understand or learn that tilting a glass full of water would spill the water. ”
He points out, “Most robots are on assembly lines in structured environments, take them to a slightly different environment and they have to be re-programmed; robots like these are brittle.”
How is the technology industry changing?
“In the modern world we’re bombarded with new types of data. If you’re creating a product you need to have these skills that allow you to stand out from the crowd,” Jonathan said.
With design, you might be creating products that are very people-facing – that requires the need to quickly interact and convey information accurately.
“If you were creating an app – how is it unique amongst millions of apps?” he asked.
Shifting roles in the tech sector
Jonathan said, “It’s interesting to look at the changing proportion of Software engineers to UX designers – IBM used to have one design job to 72 software engineering occupations in 2012. Now this ratio is down to 1:8 – and some tech companies want to bring that down to 1:3.”