Are There Robot-Proof Jobs?
The following is an excerpt from GigaOm publisher Byron Reese’s new book, The Fourth Age: Smart Robots, Conscious Computers, and the Future of Humanity. You can purchase the book here.
The Fourth Age explores the implications of automation and AI on humanity, and has been described by Ethernet inventor and 3Com founder Bob Metcalfe as framing “the deepest questions of our time in clear language that invites the reader to make their own choices. Using 100,000 years of human history as his guide, he explores the issues around artificial general intelligence, robots, consciousness, automation, the end of work, abundance, and immortality.”
One of those deep questions of our time:
When the topic of automation and AI comes up, one of the chief concerns is always technology’s potential impact on jobs. Many fear that with the introduction of wide-scale automation, there will be no more jobs left for humans. But is it really that dire? In this excerpt from The Fourth Age, Byron Reese considers if there are jobs that will never be automated.
When I give talks about AI and robots, they are often followed by a bit of Q&A. By far, the number one question I am asked from the audience is a variant of, “What should my kids be studying today to make sure that they are employable in the future?” As a dad with four kids under twenty, I too have pondered this question at length.
If possibility one is true—that is, if robots take all the jobs—then the prediction of the author Warren G. Bennis will also have come true, that “the factory of the future will have only two employees, a man and a dog. The man will be there to feed the dog. The dog will be there to keep the man from touching the equipment.” In other words, there would be no robot-proof jobs.
But if possibility two or possibility three comes to pass, then there will be robot-proof jobs. What will they be? A good method for evaluating any job’s likelihood of being automated is what I call the “training manual test.” Think about a set of instructions needed to do your job, right down to the most specific part. How long is that document? Think about a posthole digger versus an electrician. The longer the instruction manual, the more situations, special cases, and exceptions exist that need to be explained. Interestingly, when surveyed, people overwhelmingly believe that automation will destroy a large number of jobs, but also overwhelmingly believe that their own job is robot-proof. In other words, most people think that the manual to do their job is large while other people’s job manuals are smaller.
The reason the training manual test works is because writing a manual on how to do a job is a bit like programming a computer or robot to do a job. In a program, every step, every contingency, every exception, needs to be thought through and handled.
One wonders if there are some jobs that can’t be written down. Could anyone write a set of instructions to compose a sonata or write a great novel? How you answered our big foundational questions probably determines what you think on this question. To those who think they are machines, who are monists, there is nothing mysterious about creativity that would keep machines from mastering it, whereas those on the other side of that gulf see creativity as a special, uniquely human ability.
Below are several groups of jobs that, regardless of your beliefs about the capabilities of robots, should be stable for a long time.
Jobs Robots Can Do but Probably Never Will: Some jobs are quite secure and are accessible to a huge range of the population, regardless of intellect, educational attainment, or financial resources, because although a robot could do them, it doesn’t make economic sense for them to do so. Think of all of the jobs people will need for the next hundred years, but only very occasionally.
I live in a home built in the 1800s that contains several fireplaces. I wanted to be able to use them without constantly wondering if I was going to burn the house down, so I called in “the guy” for old replace restoration. He took one look at them and started spouting off how they clearly hadn’t been rebuilt in the nineteen-sometime when some report came out in England that specified blah-blah-blah better heat reflection blah-blah-blah. Then he talked about a dozen other things relating to fireplaces that I tuned out because clearly this man knew more about fireplaces than anyone else I would ever meet, or he was a convincing enough pathological liar that I would never figure him out. Either way, the result is the same: I hired him to make my fireplaces safe. He is my poster child of a guy who isn’t going to be replaced by a robot for a long time. His grandkids can probably retire from that business.
There are many of these jobs: repairing antique clocks, leveling pier-and-beam houses, and restoring vintage guitars, just to name a few. Just make sure the object you’re working on isn’t likely to vanish. Being the best VCR repairman in the world is not a career path I would suggest.
Jobs We Won’t Want Robots to Do: There are jobs that, for a variety of reasons, we wouldn’t want a machine to do. This case is pretty straight-forward. NFL football player, ballerina, spirit guide, priest, and actor, just to name a few. Additionally, there are jobs that incorporate some amount of nostalgia or quaintness, such as blacksmith or candlemaker.
Unpredictable Jobs: Some jobs are so unpredictable that you can’t write a manual on how to do, because the nature of job has inherent unpredictability. I have served as the CEO of several companies, and my job description was basically: Come in every morning and fix whatever broke and seize whatever opportunities presented themselves. Frankly, much of the time I just winged it. I remember one day I reviewed a lease agreement, brainstormed names for a new product, and captured a large rat that fell through a ceiling tile onto an employee’s desk. If there was a robot that could do all of that, I’d put down a deposit on it today.
Jobs That Need a High Social IQ: Some jobs that require high-level interaction with other people, and they usually need superior communication abilities as well. Event planner, public relations specialist, politician, hostage negotiator, and director of social media are just a few examples. Think of jobs that require empathy or outrage or passion.
Jobs Done On-Site: On-site jobs will be difficult to be done with robots. Robots work well in perfectly controlled environments, such as factories and warehouses, and not in ad hoc environments like your aunt Sue’s attic. Forest rangers and electricians are a couple of jobs like this that come to mind, but there are many more.
Jobs That Require Creativity or Abstract inking: It will be hard if not impossible for computers to be able to do jobs that require creativity or abstract thinking, because we don’t really even understand how humans do these things. Possible jobs include author (yay!), logo designer, composer, copywriter, brand strategist, and management consultant.
Jobs No One Has Thought of Yet: There are going to be innumerable new jobs created by all this new technology. Given that a huge number of current jobs didn’t exist before 2000, it stands to reason that many more new professions are just around the corner. The market research company Forrester forecasts that within the next decade, an astonishing 12.7 million new US jobs will be created building robots and the software that powers them.
To read more of GigaOm publisher Byron Reese’s new book, The Fourth Age: Smart Robots, Conscious Computers, and the Future of Humanity, you can purchase it here.