Almost half the jobs in New Zealand may be done by computers and robots in the future, researchers say.

A study by the NZ Institute of Economic Research (NZIER) has found that 46 per cent of current jobs are at "high risk" of disappearing in the next decade or two.

Most that go will be relatively low-skilled and low-wage jobs. The study found that 78 per cent of labourers and 74 per cent of machine operators, drivers and clerical workers are at high risk.

But some highly skilled jobs are also at risk, including 63 per cent of technicians and trades workers, 24 per cent of managers and 16 per cent of professionals such as accountants.

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The NZIER study is based on overseas research estimating the probability of jobs being replaced by computers or robots in the next 10 to 20 years.

But capability is not necessarily destiny. For example, the overseas study says there is a 94 per cent chance that waiters and waitresses will be automated out of existence, perhaps by online ordering and delivery by robots - but diners may still prefer to chat with living human beings.

The study also cites a 97 per cent chance that real estate brokers will be replaced by online transactions, but NZIER deputy director John Ballingall said he "certainly wouldn't buy a house from a robot".

"We are not talking about frontline staffing by robots," he said. "There will always be a place in every occupation for someone who has judgment, who can read body language and [understand] nuances of human communication."

He said the study also looked at only half the story of the future of work, and in practice job losses would be at least partly offset by new kinds of jobs being created.

"Uncle Albert's watches" are now a mainstay of Tim and Christine Smith's watch repair business in the Auckland suburb of Milford.

He said the most important thing society could do about it was to give people the skills to cope with potentially multiple career changes.

"I have a 9-year-old daughter at school and the things they learn there are completely different to what you and I may have learned," he said. "The education system is already changing to give the workers of tomorrow a set of skills which is generic. That is quite helpful."

Labour finance spokesman Grant Robertson said the study showed the need for a debate on "the future of work", which he hopes to kick off at a two-day conference organised by the party in Auckland today and tomorrow.