AI experts say 40% of time spent on mundane chores could be automated within 10 years

22 February 2023

Four in ten hours currently devoted to unpaid housework, and care of children and other family members could be automated within the decade, according to research from the University of Oxford and Ochanomizu University, published today in the journal PLOS ONE.

The paper was co-authored by Professor Vili Lehdonvirta, Senior Research Fellow at Jesus College and Professor of Economic Sociology and Digital Social Research at the Oxford Internet Institute.

Dr Lulu Shi, Postdoctoral Researcher at the Oxford Internet Institute and Departmental Lecturer in the Department of Education, University of Oxford, said:

“Our research suggests that on average around 39% of our time spent on doing domestic work can be automated in the next ten years. The degree of automation varies substantially across different types of work, however: Only 28% of care work, including activities such as teaching your child, accompanying your child, or taking care of an elderly family member, is predicted to be automated. Yet 44% of housework, including cooking, cleaning, and shopping, are expected to be automatable”.

To produce these estimates, the research team asked AI experts from the UK and Japan what difference automation was going to make to housework and other unpaid work. Among household tasks, time spent on grocery shopping was seen as most automatable. On average, experts predicted that time currently spent on this task would fall by nearly 60%.  Meanwhile, respondents believed that time spent on physical childcare would only be reduced by 21% as a result of automation.

Few studies have examined the automation of unpaid domestic work or predictions about automation and how they differ – depending on the AI experts consulted.

The Oxford-Ochanomizu team found that the estimates were influenced by the personal background of the experts. Ekaterina Hertog, Associate Professor in AI and Society, Oxford Internet Institute and Ethics in AI Institute, University of Oxford, explained:

“We find that male and female experts had different expectations about automation of domestic work, potentially reflecting the differences in their lived experiences with technology as well as their involvement in housework and care work.”

Specifically, male UK experts tended to be more optimistic about domestic automation compared with female UK experts. This is in line with previous studies which show that men tend to be more optimistic about technology than women. This relationship was reversed for Japanese male and female experts – and the authors speculate that the Japanese gender disparity in household tasks plays a role in these results.

According to the study, the general level of optimism about domestic automation also varied by country. On average, UK-based experts thought that automation could reduce domestic work time by 42%, compared with a 36% reduction expected by Japanese respondents. The authors hypothesize that this may be because technology is associated more with labour replacement in the UK, while in Japan new smart technologies are expected to work alongside humans rather than replace them.

Previous studies show that working-age people in the UK spend nearly 50% of all their work and study time on unpaid domestic work such as cooking, cleaning, and care. The new findings from the Oxford and Ochanomizu University researchers therefore suggest a large potential increase in leisure time as domestic tasks get automated.

The effects are likely to affect women more than men, however: In the UK, working-age men spend around half as much time on domestic unpaid work as working-age women. In Japan, the difference in time spent on domestic tasks is even more striking, with Japanese men spending just 18% of the time spent by women on domestic tasks. Technologies that save time currently spent on domestic work can thus result in greater gender equality at home.

The study involved 29 male and female AI experts from the UK and 36 experts from Japan. They were asked to estimate the degree to which 17 housework and care tasks might be automated over the next decade. The study’s diverse sample is not statistically representative but, as the authors note, the experts’ backgrounds offer the potential for contextualising their predictions.

Download the full paper, ‘ The Future(s) of unpaid work: How susceptible do experts from different backgrounds think the domestic sphere is to automation?’

Authors: Professor Vili Lehdonvirta, Oxford Internet Institute, University of Oxford; Dr Lulu Shi, Postdoctoral Researcher, Oxford Internet Institute and Departmental Lecturer, Department of Education, University of Oxford; Ekaterina Hertog, Associate Professor in AI and Society, Oxford Internet Institute and Ethics in AI Institute, University of Oxford; and Professor Nobuko Nagase and Professor Yuji Ohta, Graduate School of Humanities and Sciences, Ochanomizu University.


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