June 7, 2012
Telephone switchboard operators are a thing of the past—the kind of job we only encounter in black-and-white movies. And just as technology and automation rendered those workers obsolete, in the modern age, it's also eradicating all sorts of other jobs; bank tellers, toll booth operators, and pharmacy clerks all may soon be a distant memory. We’re already starting to self-checkout at the grocery store, put in our own orders at McDonald's—and watch robots make our sushi.
At Foxconn, the world's leading electronics manufacturer that currently employs 1.2 million workers and 10,000 robots, humans are rapidly being replaced. Over the next three years, it plans to up the number of androids to 500,000.
The Robot Revolution: Your Job May Be Next
Think your job is safe? You might want to think again. "The set of jobs that won't someday be done by robots is actually rather small and shrinking, as technology advances," says Mani Subramani, an associate professor with the Carlson School of Management at the University of Minnesota. Silicon Valley computer engineer Martin Ford, author of The Lights in the Tunnel: Automation, Accelerating Technology and the Economy of the Future, agrees. "Jobs that are in any way routine—including skilled jobs—are going to be threatened by automation," he says. Working in a cutting-edge field won't necessarily protect you, either. "New industries that rely on a lot of technology will be more—not less—likely to automate or use labor-saving technology," Ford says.
In fact, increasing automation played a significant role in our current economic crisis, according to Ford. "Big companies have gotten a lot more efficient and need less workers," he says. "This is a factor, to some extent, in the poor job market and flat wages for new college grads."
So what kinds of fields are a good bet for job seekers? Which industries should you aim for if you want to avoid being replaced by R2-D2? "Jobs that are non-routine or creative, or which involve complex human interaction, tend to be safer," Ford explains.
The good news is that there are plenty of emerging or growing industries—like those listed below—that will require a human touch for a long time to come.
1. Wind and solar power
These industries will provide jobs for plumbers, electricians, and construction people, particularly whenever a new power plant or wind farm has to be built. Now sure, parts—like solar panels—are likely to be made by automation. "But they're hard to install by robot," says Tana Kantor, Publisher of The Green Economy, a magazine that covers eco-conscious companies and business practices. "Each installation is different, and there is no way to automate or mechanize the process." She adds, however, that while there will be plenty of work to be done in the development phase, not many people will be needed to maintain plants.
2. Help desks
There is a trend to move help desks—for banks, software companies, and online stores, for instance—back into the U.S., especially in the southeast, where jobs are scarce, according to Kantor. "Increasingly, help desks are 'on-shoring,'" she says, pointing out that Microsoft now has help centers all over the U.S, in places like North Dakota, Florida, and California. Why the move back? Thanks to the bad economy, hiring U.S. workers is less expensive than it used to be. What's more, as Kantor notes, language and cultural barriers can make certain customers uncomfortable or impatient; many companies are betting that putting customers more at ease will be good for business. Could a help desk version of Siri be created? Sure, but it’s not likely going to be sophisticated enough to handle all the issues that could come up. When software and hardware need a Sherlock instead of a Siri, a problem-solving human is better than a bot.
3. Managing automation
Ironically, even robots needs managers. "Although there's increasing automation in manufacturing plants in the US, there is a huge—and growing—need for workers who can manage the automation," says Kantor. "The industry requires people who understand welding, for example, and can also calibrate, maintain, and run the computers that might be doing the welding."
4. Primary and secondary education
Since there's no "profit motive that drives efficiency" when it comes to teaching at the primary and secondary levels, these kinds of jobs aren't likely to be automated any time soon, as Ford notes. But college-level teaching? That might be endangered. "I think higher education will go increasingly online," says Ford; he notes that six recent experiments found that college students enrolled in courses with machine-guided tutoring software performed just as well as their counterparts in traditional classes. "A few high-profile teachers will lecture huge numbers of students, and there are new software applications that can automate grading," he says.
5. Environmental think tanks
As the environmental problems brought on by global warming increase—and energy costs rise—more and more people will be needed to study and enact means by which businesses can reduce their carbon footprints. As Kantor points out, we'll need workers who can measure carbon use, devise strategies to lower it, and guide implementation of those plans. "Lots of people up and down the supply chain will be needed to make such initiatives work—to decide what data to collect and how to collect it, to analyze it, and to figure out which changes to make," she says.
6. Most health care
If you're a doctor, nurse, or physical therapist—working in a healthcare job that requires a lot of direct interaction with patients—there's probably no need to be looking over your shoulder for a machine version of yourself, says Ford. All the same, he cautions, "there are certainly a lot of areas where automation is developing—like hospital delivery and pharmacy robots. The Japanese are even working on automating some nursing and elder-care functions." In fact, he adds, systems like IBM's Watson may even start making diagnoses some day. And radiology jobs—already off-shored to India much of the time, where doctors read scans at much lower cost—are also likely to be largely automated eventually.
7. Human care
Robots won't advance that quickly in industries where a human touch is preferable, even if it isn't entirely necessary, as Subramani points out; in situations where interacting with a machine might be upsetting instead of soothing, humans won't be pushed out. "For instance, I find it hard to believe that we will have funeral home employees replaced by robots, even though robots may be more efficient," Subramani says. "I think industries like daycare are reasonably immune for the same reasons."
Though content-stripping bots can already cut and assemble simple news stories, and “content farms” are spreading like pop-up stores, writers, editor, and designers are likely to be needed well into the future to help keep the Internet running. "Yes, there are very good 'off-the-shelf' programs like WordPress to 'automate' how a website gets published," Kantor notes. "But we need lots of real people to input data, design pages, and write and edit material so that people actually want to read it." Television channels and magazines will also continue to need to employ people for similar reasons—not just to report on stories, but to design graphics, manage editorial and production teams, and so on.
9. Lawyers, financial analysts and other creative knowledge workers
Creative knowledge workers—those who have to think creatively for a living—aren't going to be phased any time soon, either. Take lawyers, for instance. "Much of the core work involves value judgment: what is good, what is bad what is desirable or not," says Subramani, who points to the opinions judges write as an example. "It's more than just logical reasoning based on evidence." Other creative knowledge workers include architects and financial analysts. But those doing non-creative knowledge work, like paralegals who search for and gather data won’t fare so well. “Doing anything that involves consistently executing a rote task—is likely to be where robots are likely to excel," Subramini adds.
Predictions about our robot overlords aside, we will probably never have a robot in the White House. "I think a lot of government jobs may someday be threatened, but probably not those of politicians," says Ford. A robotic president would require human-like artificial intelligence of a kind that experts may never be able to develop, he points out. And even if they could, the people who kiss babies, give speeches, and make laws for a living will probably retain their gigs.
"The best answer for why we won't have robotic politicians is that the politicians would never allow it," says Ford. "Among workers, politicians really have a unique level of power when it comes to protecting their own interests." However, their support staff—government-paid analysts, auditors, and accountants—won't necessarily be as safe since much of all of the work they do could be automated some day.