The Future of High-Skill Work

DaVinci Robot Surgeon with Assistant

“The potential of artificial intelligence and advanced robotics to perform tasks once reserved for humans is no longer reserved for spectacular demonstrations by the likes of IBM’s Watson, Rethink Robotics’ Baxter, DeepMind, or Google’s driverless car. Just head to an airport: automated check-in kiosks now dominate many airlines’ ticketing areas. Pilots actively steer aircraft for just three to seven minutes of many flights, with autopilot guiding the rest of the journey. Passport-control processes at some airports can place more emphasis on scanning document bar codes than on observing incoming passengers.

What will be the impact of automation efforts like these, multiplied many times across different sectors of the economy? Can we look forward to vast improvements in productivity, freedom from boring work, and improved quality of life? Should we fear threats to jobs, disruptions to organizations, and strains on the social fabric?”

McKinsey Quarterly

What’s the future of high-skill work?

Most of us have at least started considering the impact automation will have on jobs made up of dull, dirty, and dangerous work. It’s easy for us to imagine more and more robots doing things like clearing IEDs in combat zones or performing routine, monotonous hotel jobs.

We’re much less likely to think about robots taking over high-skill work; even fewer of us think about the tasks we perform in our own work that might be easily performed by automated systems.

McKinsey and Company recently released a preliminary report of research results on the impact of workplace automation that does just that.

The report took a straightforward approach: its authors analyzed roughly 800 occupations and broke them down into their constituent activities, and the capabilities needed to perform them.

The findings begin with a simple insight: in the short run, automat-ing individual activities and capabilities is far more likely than automating entire occupations. This finding makes sense in light of our own experience with technological automation.

Take housekeeping, for example. While we’ve automated activities like washing clothes and dishes or vacuuming rugs, the occupation of “housekeeper” is not likely to disappear anytime soon. That’s because there isn’t yet a robot capable of doing all the things a housekeeper does.

The study found that about 45% of the roughly 2,000 activities needed to perform the studied jobs could be performed by automated agents using currently available technology. If natural language recognition were to improve just slightly, an additional 13% of activities could be robotized.

Activities are rooted in broader categories, called capabilities. The study found 18 capabilities in three groups that accounted for all 2,000 vocational activities.


  • Social and emotional sensing
  • Social and emotional reasoning
  • Emotional and social output


  • Understanding natural language
  • Generating natural language
  • Retrieving information
  • Recognizing known patterns/categories (supervised learning)
  • Generating novel pattern/categories
  • Logical reasoning/problem solving
  • Optimizing and planning
  • Creativity
  • Articulating/displaying output
  • Coordinating with multiple agents


  • Sensory perception
  • Fine motor skills/dexterity
  • Gross motor skills
  • Navigation
  • Mobility

All 800 jobs studied used combinations of these capabilities and activities.

But, like housework, automating activities, or even capabilities, isn’t the same as automating jobs. This distinction is particularly important as automation moves towards performing traditionally high-skill, professional work.

Take surgery, for example. While current technologies (like the Da Vinci system) can perform a wide range of surgeries, “being a competent surgeon” is much more demanding. Besides the obviously necessary sensory perception and fine motor dexterity and capabilities (both of which are currently available) competent surgeons much be able to coordinate with other team members, use social and emotional sensing and reasoning, and generate novel patterns when confronted with the unexpected. All that means that while more surgical activities might be automated in the near future, the role of surgeon will continue to be left for humans.

For how long? No one can answer that question definitively. We do know that regardless of their technical proficiency, robots will not be able to match human performance on many of the capabilities listed above any time soon.

Smart professionals will use that time to develop two important sets of capabilities:

  • Robot User — Learning which tasks robots can perform and which they can’t will be the hallmark of expert roboticists. Professionals who develop high levels of expertise in using automated systems will be better prepared for the new demands of highly skilled work. This may seem obvious but many pros will find it difficult to comfortably work with systems that may ultimately take over many of their own activities.
  • Robot Teacher — Helping robots succeed in complex situations will be a highly valuable skill set in the coming years. To do so, professionals will need to deeply understand the subtleties of their work domain and the key moments that require high levels of creativity (or any of the other 18 capabilities) for success. They will also need to overcome the natural anxiety and resistance many will experience as robots come to perform more of the activities that used to be strictly reserved for high status/high salaried humans.

When will all of this happen? The McKinsey study doesn’t make any firm predictions but the chances are the next decade will be filled with examples of high-skill jobs being disaggregated into tasks and capabilities and performed by increasingly capable robots.

Now is the time to get ready. Now is the time to develop your RoboPsych.