What Ever Happened to That Scary 2013 Prediction About

I know it’s difficult to recall back to a time prior to 2016 but try anyway and remember a 2013 study that made the rounds in accounting after it was featured on Planet Money in 2015. By “made the rounds” I mean “scared the shit out of everyone” because the gist was that most of your tasks could be automated — thereby rendering you obsolete — unless the profession came up with a way to convince clients some kind of accounting wizardry and judgment is required to make balance sheets balance.

The study — The Future of Employment: How Susceptible Are Jobs to Computerisation? — was inspired in part by (my least favorite) economist John Maynard Keynes’ 1930 essay Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren. In it, Keynes predicted a future in which humans would work very little in hourly terms due to technological progress, thus freeing us up for artistic pursuits and the existential crises that come from having way too much free time on your hands. He dubbed this “technological unemployment, that is “unemployment due to our discovery of means of economising the use of labour outrunning the pace at which we can find new uses for labour.”

From a 2017 MIT Initiative on the Digital Economy piece entitled The Emerging, Unpredictable Age of AI:

“But this is only a temporary phase of maladjustment,” [Keynes] added. “I would predict that the standard of life in progressive countries one hundred years hence will be between four and eight times as high as it is.” Keynes believed that technological progress would lead us to a brighter future. By 2030, people would likely work no more than 15 hours a week, and their biggest problem would be how to use their leisure and freedom from economic cares.

*checks calendar* Sweet, just gotta suffer through eight more years and we’re set.

Back to the study. Technological revolutions and their effect on employment are nothing new to us, of course. The entire city of Detroit is a depressing example of what can happen when humans are automated almost entirely out of an industry. Will tomorrow’s accounting firms look like today’s Detroit?

a dilapidated home in Detroit with a KPMG logo slapped on it

I’m sorry, Detroit. I don’t mean to call you out specifically. Milwaukee looks pretty bad, too.

Most discussions about automation and its impact on employment focus on the ability of machines — in this case mostly algorithms and programs but let’s call it machines anyway because it sounds cooler — to perform repetitive and routine tasks. The more repetitive and routine, the easier it is to teach a machine how to do it. You don’t need us to tell you then that a large part of the typical accountants’ workload can be delegated to machines, assuming someone decides to tell the machines what to do. It’s like interns, interns can do tasks assigned to them but very rarely do they have the independent judgment to seek out tasks they can perform. This shift toward automation is already happening, with firms putting big money into AI and analytics. And they are not committing the same big money to human salaries, but that’s a discussion for another day. Thing is, we’re at the point now where the algorithms are more intuitive than interns. And that’s the part that should freak you out a little bit.

Remember, this study was authored nearly ten years ago and quite a bit has happened in machine learning since:

Although the extent of these developments remains to be seen, estimates by MGI (2013) suggests that sophisticated algorithms could substitute for approximately 140 million full-time knowledge workers worldwide. 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 (Brynjolfsson and McAfee, 2011).

scored various jobs on nine traits according to their
susceptibility to computerization

Mental health and substance abuse social workers (found under community and social services). This job has a 0.3 percent chance of being automated. That’s because it’s ranked high in cleverness, negotiation, and helping others. The job most likely to be done by a robot? Telemarketers. No surprise; it’s already happening.

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