Educated Guesses

Thanks to rapid advances in the fields of artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics, smart machines that would have once been relegated to works of science-fiction are now a part of our reality.

Today, we have AIs that can pick apples, manage hotels, and diagnose cancer. Researchers at MIT have even developed an algorithm that can predict the immediate future. If only they could train it to predict how automation is going to impact the human workforce...

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Currently, opinions on the subject are as varied as the types of AIs in development. In January, MIT Technology Review compiled a list of 19 studies focused on automation and the future of work. No two reached identical conclusions.

In 2017, research and advisory company Gartner released a study predicting automation would destroy 1.8 million jobs worldwide by 2020. That same year, another research and advisory company, Forrester, released their own report on automation and the workforce. According to their calculations, the U.S. alone will lose 13.8 million jobs to automation in 2018.

The numbers vary even more wildly the farther out you look. By 2030, futurist Thomas Frey predicts humans will lose 2 billion jobs to robots, while researchers from consulting firm McKinsey predict a comparatively paltry 400 to 800 million in losses.

Beyond the numbers, experts also disagree on the professions that will become automated, as well as where in the world will bear the brunt of the job losses.

Are teachers and writers safe or should they start thinking about a career change? What about lawyers and doctors? Will the U.S. be the nation to lose the highest percentage of jobs, as PricewaterCooper predicts? Or will Japan be hit the hardest, like McKinsey's report concludes?

In an attempt to get to the bottom of the automation mystery, Futurism asked several experts to tell us who they believe will be most likely to suffer as a result of automation. Here's what they had to say.

Edward D. Hess, professor of business administration and Batten Executive-in-Residence at the University of Virginia:

Automation is going to dramatically impact service and professional workers. To find work, one must be good at doing what the technology won’t be able to do well.

For the near term, those skills are: (1) higher order thinking (critical, innovative, imaginative) that is not linear; (2) the delivery of customized services that require high emotional intelligence to other humans; and (3) trade skills that call for real-time iterative problem diagnosis and solving and/or complex human dexterity.

Jobs that have a high risk of being automated are jobs that involve repetitive tasks and linear tasks that are easy to code: “if this, then do this.”

High-risk fields are retail, fast food, agriculture, customer service,  accounting, marketing, management consulting, investment management, finance, higher education, insurance, and architecture. Specific jobs include security guards, long-haul truck drivers, manual laborers, construction workers, paralegals, CPAs, radiologists, and administrative workers.

Technology is going to continue to advance, and in reality, all of us are going to have become life-long learners, constantly upgrading our skills. The most important skills to have will be knowing how to be highly efficient at iterative learning — “unlearning and relearning” — and develop high emotional and social intelligence.

Jobs requiring high emotional engagement in the customization and delivery of services to other human beings will be the most safe. Those include psychological counselors, social workers, elementary school teachers, physical therapists, personal trainers, trial lawyers, and estate planners. Other jobs that will be in high demand are in computer and data science.

What will become human beings' unique skill? Emotional and social intelligence.

Joel Mokyr, an economic historian at Northwestern University and author of A Culture of Growth: Origins of the Modern Economy:

The short answer is people who have boring, routine, repetitive, and physically arduous jobs.

The long answer is that labor-saving process innovation and “classical” productivity increase may make some workers redundant as they are replaced by robots and machines that can do their jobs better and cheaper.

This could get a lot worse if AI will also replace workers who are trained and skilled in medium human-capital intensity jobs, such as drivers, legal assistants, bank tellers, etc. So far, the evidence for that is very weak, but it could change, depending on what happens to demand and output as prices fall and quality improves. What counts is demand elasticities with regards to price and with regards to product quality (including user-friendliness).

However, product innovation (unlike process innovation) is likely to create new jobs that were never imagined. Who in 1914 would have suspected that their great-grandchildren would be video game designers or cybersecurity specialists or GPS programmers or veterinary psychiatrists?

The dynamic is likely to be that machines pick up more and more routine jobs (including mental ones) that humans used to do. At the same time, new tasks and functions will be preserved and created that only humans can perform because they require instinct, intuition, human contact, tacit knowledge, fingerspitzengefühl, or some kind of je ne sais quoi that cannot be mechanized.

Bob Doyle, director of communications for the Association for Advancing Automation:

I would argue that the question should be phrased as the following: "Who is actually going to thrive because of automation?" And the answer is everyone who embraces automation.

Automation is the competitive advantage used by companies around the world, and for good reason. Companies automate heavy-lifting, repetitive, low-value processes in order to achieve higher output and product quality so that they can be more competitive in global markets.

That gives them the resources to innovate, to improve business processes, and to continue to meet consumer demands. That lets those companies continue to hire human workers for the jobs they’re best-suited for: insight-driven, decision-based, and creative processes. You can say that another word for "automation" is "progress."

The inability to compete is the real threat to jobs, not automation.

Between 2010 and 2016, there were almost 137,000 robots deployed in manufacturing facilities in the U.S. During that time, manufacturing jobs increased by 894,000 (U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics) and the unemployment rate declined by 5.1 percent.

These companies (along with their employees) are competing and thriving today because of automation. We should remember that technological advances have always changed the nature of jobs. We believe this time is no different. We must be sure that we’re preparing the workforce to fill these jobs that are being created, especially in advanced manufacturing. The future of automation in bright!

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