Practical Thoughts on How to Survive When Robots Take Our Jobs

Artificial intelligence will replace half our jobs in 20 years, some say, while others claim its impact will be much less. Amidst the confusion lies an important lesson for all those who seek to future-proof their career and stay relevant in a somewhat scary future.

The pace of change is accelerating, we keep hearing.

In just a few years, cars will be driving themselves and millions of chauffeurs will lose their jobs. And not just them — lawyers, accountants and countless other professionals will witness the slow disintegration of their profession as artificial intelligence starts eating the work pie, slice by slice.

Even as a writer, I have my concerns. If a computer could beat the world champion in Jeopardy, Chess, Poker and even make its way to the finals of a literary contest in Japan, why wouldn’t it also be able to write these lines eventually?

Every era has its own doomsday scenario, and right now artificial intelligence and robotics represent some of our biggest fears, perhaps overshadowing even global warming.

“But a computer can’t possibly do what I do,” I hear many saying. And I’ll give them some credit — after all, we human beings are complex creatures who mostly have no idea about how we “work”. We just do it. So how could we ever instruct a machine to mimic that?

Take school bus drivers, for instance. They not only have to navigate an 11-ton piece of metal on wheels around in rush hour traffic, they also socialize with the kids and their parents and keep an eye on the young ones to maintain order. A set of skills that are not so easy for a computer to do.

Still, the US government estimated in 2016 that 30 to 40 percent of school bus driving jobs will be replaced when automated vehicles (AVs) get a commercial breakthrough. (If you happen to be a self-employed driver, perhaps it’s time you considered finding another job: There’s a 90-100 % chance you’ll be out of work when it happens).

So when to worry? And should we even worry at all?

I checked what the experts had to say on the matter. As it turns out, they don’t agree at all, so the future, as always, remains uncertain. But I did find some hidden gems, which might just prove useful in a future filled with uncertainty — I’ll get back to them shortly.

Jobs will disappear, but estimates differ wildly

So, first of all, what’s going to happen? Are robots really going to take our jobs?

Automation, artificial intelligence and robotics have suddenly turned up on the radar of governments around the world. As a result, global consulting companies like McKinsey and PwC have churned out extensive reports about the impact of these trends on employment. I read up on those reports, so you don’t have to, and they left me with this impression:

“We have little to no idea of what’s going to happen. But we sure like to pretend that we do.”

Here’s why:

The first report to seriously put AI on the job agenda anticipated that 47 percent of total US employment is at risk of computerization over the next decades. A few years later, an analysis by OECD popped up with a soothing message: The previous findings are wrong because machines will only destroy 9 percent of jobs. Since then, both PwC and McKinsey have published similar reports anticipating 38 and 46 percent of jobs at risk (with variances for each country).

What to believe, then?

What you should know is that these reports have different methods to reach their conclusions (which are also disclosed differently). I won’t go into further detail about that here, so let’s focus on what matters right now:

Machines are probably going to take over a huge amount of work from humans in the next 10-20 years, and we can’t be sure new human jobs will appear at the same rate they disappear. Bummer.

The most important conclusion, however, is that it doesn’t make sense to think of this transition as being about jobs lost in most cases. Unless you’re unlucky to be in one of the few industries where human labour in certain roles will be almost completely swept away by robots (manufacturing, transportation, agriculture etc.), you have to think in different terms.

Forget about job automation — it’s skills we should worry about

One of the reasons that experts disagree so much about the impact of artificial intelligence on human jobs is that it’s so hard to quantify. Because when exactly is a job “automatable”? Is it the moment you have a self-driving car that can navigate by itself? What if an integrated part of the job is to entertain the passengers as well, or — to return to the school bus driver example — attend to children?

This debate often gets overlooked in mainstream media because it’s easier to sell a story about entire jobs disappearing. What is more likely to happen, according to the reports, is that artificial intelligence will replace certain tasks and skills in a far wider range of jobs. The school bus driver job may transition into a role of caretaker that doesn’t involve driving.

Another example: Think about how much time you spend scheduling meetings with people by writing emails back and forth. A bot called Amy can already do that for you. The benefit? You have more time to spend on actual work.

Every time a task gets automated, it won’t be necessary anymore for humans to carry out that particular task. But as long as a person is still needed for other tasks, the job will remain. So instead of treating technology as a “job remover,” try and look at it as a “task remover.” Then the obvious question to ask yourself becomes not “Will robots steal my job?”, but rather “What crucial work tasks will robots be able to do better than me, and how can I focus on improving the skills required for the tasks adding the most value to my future career?”

Focus on improving the skills that will add most value in the future

This piece of advice may sound trivial, but history is full of examples of people who have chosen to ignore such commonsense truths and ended up paying the price. I’m no exception.

In my previous work as a journalist at a Danish tech publication, we had a bad habit of copying the news of other media outlets. Each morning, one of us would spend a couple of hours browsing related news sites for important stories and rewrite about three or four of them to fit our publication (citing, of course, the original author). Sounds stupid? Well, I can assure you that most other news organizations do the exact same thing because they want to be the platform visitors turn to for all the important news.

Here’s why this method is a huge problem for journalists: Copying news is a routine task with little demand for creativity.

In other words, keep doing it, and a computer will eventually take your job. In fact, some publishers already use artificial intelligence to automatically generate news about the stock market.

The key here is to understand the underlying skills required for the specific task. One of the conclusions from the PwC study is that artificial intelligence is particularly good at learning routine tasks but has a harder time dealing with creativity and literacy.

Now, you may ask, “But if there’s a demand for copying news right now, why shouldn’t I do it?”.

My answer is that time spent on improving skills that hold little or no value for the future is a waste. Why do it, when you could spend your time improving those that really matter instead?

I’m talking about creative problem-solving skills, empathy, leadership and other social skills, where computers still can’t trump us human beings.

Brain research shows that learning something new is not as simple as doing it once. Although synapses form quickly in the brain, it takes deliberate practice to make long-lasting imprints.

So, what is the takeaway of this post? It’s as simple as this: Focus on improving the skills that will add the most value in the future and leave behind those that will be automated over the next couple of decades.

I’ve created this blog to provide guidance in this difficult, transitional period, so you can face your future without fears. We’ll explore different ways technology may impact our life and I’ll help you find and apply the skills necessary to thrive in an uncertain future.

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About Elías Lundström
Journalist, founder of Beat the Robot.

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