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Evan Horowitz | Quick Study

How to keep robots from taking your job

Robot arms at work in a factory in China.Vincent Yu/AP

Slowly but surely, the machines are stealing our jobs. Already there are assembly lines manned by mechanical arms, toll booths overseen by wireless receivers, and a retail store in the heart of Silicon Valley staffed entirely by telepresence robots.

This is only the beginning. As artificial intelligence improves, even the most highly educated Americans may find themselves losing out to computers — think doctors replaced by diagnostic machines.

Where to hide, then, if you can’t rely on brainpower to protect you? One suggestion, from a recent analysis of the changing job market, is to hone your social skills. Over the last 30 years, job growth has been strongest in those fields that require high levels of social intelligence.

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Are social skills really the key to outlasting machines?

A lot more research needs to be done before this point is settled, but recent work by Harvard economist David Deming has found that social skills seem to provide a big advantage.

Going back to 1980, the most vulnerable jobs have been the ones built around narrow, repetitive routines. At first, that meant mostly low- or medium-wage jobs, including in manufacturing or clerical work. But high-skill, high-routine workers are now losing ground as well, in areas like engineering and accounting.

Fields that require regular interactions with other people and greater use of social skills have been much more resilient, particularly fields which combine high social intelligence with other cognitive skills.

This includes jobs like consulting, which involve lots of teamwork and collective problem solving. Industries like that have seen both strong job growth and widespread wage gains, a marked contrast to other areas of the economy.

What makes social skills so valuable?

Social intelligence is one great advantage humans have over machines — at least for now.

Computers are already quite good at interpreting problems and devising solutions, skills that have helped them best the world’s top Jeopardy players and beat the greatest chess masters.

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But social interaction is a task computers are further from mastering, leaving the field clear for humans to excel.

And social skills are something businesses constantly rely on. That’s obvious in the service sector, where interacting with customers is the core activity. But it’s true most anywhere you find people working in collaborative teams.

Teams can be quite powerful, pooling together ideas and refinements unlikely to come from any single individual. But there’s a cost to teamwork: You have to coordinate, have meetings, and come to consensus.

Employees with good social skills can minimize these costs by smoothing the coordination process. Not only can they distribute responsibilities in a way that ensures each team member has an appropriate role, but they can also “trade tasks,” as Deming emphasizes, easily switching roles if they get stuck.

Do women fare better in a job market that values social intelligence?

Women are certainly seizing the opportunities in this shift towards social skills.

Men, today, are engaged in jobs that don’t look all that different from the jobs of 1980. There’s been a slight decline in routinized work, and a modest uptick in the use of social skills, but nothing dramatic.

Women, however, have made a far more dramatic break, leaving routine work behind and embracing careers that require social intelligence.

Whether this gives women an advantage in the war against the robots is a question we may be able to answer when the next wave of innovation crashes against the job market.

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Will the machines ultimately win?

Despite many suggestive anecdotes, the robot takeover is actually unfolding very slowly, if at all.

Were the robots already here, you’d expect to see a spike in economic productivity — because with machine help, people should be able to make more stuff. But productivity has been relatively low in recent years, which is something of a puzzle.

Still, with computers getting faster and more capable every day, it’s entirely possible that machines will someday perform most every job — for better or worse, depending on how we choose to distribute the gains of the robot-run world, and whether we find satisfying things to do with our work-free lives.

Until that time, if you want to have the best chance of holding your ground against the robots, it may be time to put aside the books and work on your social and non-cognitive skills. That’s one area where humans still have a comparative advantage.


Evan Horowitz digs through data to find information that illuminates the policy issues facing Massachusetts and the US. He can be reached at evan.horowitz@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeHorowitz.