Research Shows Nerds Will Be Last to Lose Jobs to Robots

Getty Images / Thierry Chesnot

A new paper from researchers in Texas has named the antidote to technological unemployment: nerdery.

A study published this week in the European Journal of Personality finds that the people best-suited to fending off job-stealing robots are those who spent their adolescence with wide-ranging intellectual interests, particularly in the arts and sciences.

In the team’s estimation, a person’s most important economic attributes may soon be their personality traits. These range from fairly obvious things, like “industriousness” to less apparently relevant to employment, like an enjoyment of art or overall skill in social situations.

The study also found a relationship between future employment and raw I.Q. For every 15 extra points of I.Q., they estimate a 7 percent drop in the probability that a person’s job will be computerized. This doesn’t completely explain away the observed impact of a background in the arts and sciences, though, since one of the most important factors determining a person’s future was their level of creativity. Computers, after all, can have very high I.Q.s, but they still can’t write a joke that’s worth a damn.

Interestingly, the importance of social and creative skills seems to hold true across socioeconomic backgrounds — that is, people from poorer backgrounds are at a disadvantage, but nerdy youths still see an advantage over their peers in terms of future employment opportunities vs. robots.

In the paper, the team writes that according to their research, “regardless of social background, people with higher levels of intelligence, higher levels of maturity and extraversion, higher interests in arts and sciences… tended to select (or be selected) into less computerizable jobs 11 and 50 years later.”

The teams’ lead researcher, Rodica Damian, can be seen speaking about the research in a short clip, below.

The study could make these sorts of claims because it made use of a dataset collected by the American Institutes for Research, which looked at everything from personality traits and I.Q. to socioeconomic status for over 50 years. This team’s research made use of such data from almost 350,000 people.

Now, to an extent it has always been true that highly intelligent, widely interested people naturally ascend to the highest levels of society. What’s different now is that the distinction between these personality types won’t determine their relative levels of pay or even social status, but whether or not they have access to a job, at all. It’s not just the march of robotics, but of machine learning and A.I. as well. It’s coming not just for laboring jobs, but basic desk work and even less emotionally demanding forms of human interaction, like phone support.

Certainly, some people will see this as a good thing. If employment is the primary means by which people acquire power, then better the smart, emotionally intelligent people acquire that employment. On the other hand, this forecasts a future in which even a society that had eliminated all built-in groups-based inequality could still be rife with individual inequality. It might be tough to get too worried about the idea of the lower side of the I.Q. distribution becoming less relevant in society, but that’s assuming some sustainable economic model arises to prevent widespread unrest among the newly jobless majority.

If high school is often an unjust meritocracy where the jocks rule supreme, then the world may be turning into an equally unjust playground for the world’s social and intellectual elite.

You know, more than it is, already.

Related Tags