Unpaid housework and caring responsibilities currently occupy a significant portion of people’s time. However, what if by the end of the decade, four in ten of those hours could be automated – sounds great right? According to research from the University of Oxford in the UK and Ochanomizu University in Japan published in the PLOS ONE journal, this could soon become a reality.
Whilst the level of automation varies given the task at hand, with some being more optimal to automate than others, the research shines a light on a new possible future at home. Dr Lulu Shi, a Lecturer for Oxford’s Department of Education and Postdoctoral Researcher at the Oxford Internet Institute says: “Our research suggests, on average, around 39% of our time spent on doing domestic work can be automated, the degree of automation varies very much across different types of work.” According to the findings, up to 44% of housework activities such as cooking, cleaning, and shopping had the potential to be automated. However, only 28% of care work, which includes tasks such as teaching and accompanying your child, or taking care of an elderly family member, could be automated successfully.
From these findings, the team at Oxford worked with AI experts at Ochanomizu in Japan to fine-tune and determine an average level of automation in regard to housework or other unpaid work. The final number attributed to this potential for automation across the next decade came to 39%, a considerable amount when totalled across a significant time period.
The UK-Japanese collaboration also was able to determine which tasks are the most automatable, with grocery shopping taking the crown for the most likely to benefit from automation in the future. The time which is currently spent on average on food shopping could see a drastic reduction of up to 60% within the next 10 years. The next in line for having the most potential for automation were cooking and cleaning, which themselves could see a time reduction of 46% thanks to automation. However, as for other areas of unpaid domestic tasks, such as care work, only a 21% reduction is believed to occur within the next ten years, likely a result of these tasks requiring a much more human touch when compared with regular chores.
Due to the nature of automation, work that is traditionally labelled as being ‘routine’ is much more favourable for the technology to be applied to, and in some cases is already seeing research and development. Technology such as automated grocery shopping and deliveries is already in the works whereas others only need to be enhanced further. Hoovering, for example, can already be automated to a degree with robotic hoovers that are programmed to move around the house and clean up dirt and dust. Clothes washing can also be automated with washing machines and dryers that can be programmed to run at certain times and settings. Other tasks such as cleaning windows and mowing the lawn can also be automated with the use of robotics. Beyond the ‘physical automation,’ other parts of the home can be automated, such as lights, thermostats, and security systems with smart home technology. These are all areas that already have automation and only need to be enhanced with further features and technologies.
An interesting note that was found during the study was the difference in expectations about automation between men and women, with men far more optimistic in their predictions than women. “Male and female experts had different expectations about automation… potentially reflecting the differences in their lived experiences with technology as well as their involvement in housework,” says Ekaterina Hertog, Associate Professor in AI, and Society at Oxford Internet Institute.