Is my job safe? It’s a question we have all asked ourselves at some point, but at no time has it been more relevant than today. With current advancements in robotics and software, the contemporary human workforce seems to be under siege. Some believe that their jobs are untouchable – that automation only affects unskilled labor or factory workers. That is a gross miscalculation. Today, even white-collar jobs are being cut due to technological advancements.
Throughout history, job loss due to technology and automation has always threatened the workforce. Do you know anyone who works as a switchboard operator, elevator operator, toll collector, or projectionist in a movie theater? Yes, jobs come and go, but the trend is widening and accelerating at an alarming rate. The best way to determine if your job is at risk is to have a look at some current statistics and projections.
What the Numbers Show
As analysts sift through recent and historical data, the trends in job losses become evident. This data gives us a good idea as to what jobs will be affected in the near-term. However, attempting to predict the long-term future of our human workforce is where things become tricky, as many of the experts disagree on an accurate timeline. It all comes down to how fast technological advancements in robotics and artificial intelligence (AI) will proceed. In the meantime, whatever future projections the experts come up with, although informative, are no more than educated guesses.
Job Loss Statistics
Between 2000 and 2010, the United States lost over five-and-a-half million jobs in the manufacturing sector. Many politicians attribute this massive drain of employment to China ramping up manufacturing operations. However, a study by the Center for Business and Economic Research at Ball State University disagrees. According to this study, 85% of job losses during that period were due to technology and automation.
The remarkable thing about this statistic is the fact that even though there were fewer people in the manufacturing workforce, industrial output grew. In other words, the manufacturing sector became more productive with fewer people.
A projection from the University of Oxford states that almost half of all jobs in the United States will be under pressure from automation in the next several decades. This eye-opening estimate further states that the unskilled, low-paying jobs will be the employment category most at risk. However, it does not say that the higher-level, skilled workers will be completely safe either.
Yet another study put forth by the McKinsey Global Institute goes on to say that 800 million jobs may be lost to automation worldwide. The study focuses on advancements in robotics and AI as the culprit when it comes to human workforce reduction.
If you’re thinking these reports and studies are all doom and gloom, that’s not so. Many of them put a rosy spin on the truly appalling numbers, mentioning that automation will also open up whole new job categories. That may be a silver lining on a dark cloud, but it’s a very thin lining for someone who is on the verge of losing their job to a robot. So, which of us are most at risk?
Is Your Job on the Hit List?
It’s true that the manufacturing sector has been affected the most due to technological advancement and automation. However, there are other sectors that have been impacted substantially, and with new technologies just on the horizon, many other sectors are at imminent risk of being affected within a few years.
Jobs Already Suffering
- Factory Worker. Robots are nothing new to the assembly-line floor. Manufacturing was one of the first sectors to adopt robotics and automation. It’s no wonder that jobs in manufacturing have been hit the hardest to date.
- Telemarketer. Have you noticed that the vast majority of those pesky calls we get just as we’re about to sit down to dinner are actually robocalls? These days, it’s not too common to get a live person on the line trying to sell you something.
- Bank Teller. ATMs have drastically cut down on the number of bank tellers. Next time you walk into a bank – now a rare event for many people – notice the number of employees you see behind the counter. Most branches have an average of five to seven employees working at one time. Twenty years ago, even a small branch had more people than that.
- Inventory and Warehouse Worker. The best example of robotic automation is Amazon’s network of warehouses. Amazon still employs over 200,000 workers, but in many of their warehouses, the actual grunt work is done by robots of different types. Even though they have not yet completely replaced all of Amazon’s human warehouse employees, these robots help sort, stack, and pack orders for shipment. Amazon has plans to further automate the process and make their warehouses even more productive. The result? More human jobs lost.
Jobs at Risk
- Cashier. We’ve all seen them, and most of us avoid them like the plague. Self-checkout stations in grocery stores and other retailers have been around for years, and the stores have been so desperate for us to use them that they sometimes have employees standing by to show us how. Human cashiers haven’t exactly been replaced yet, but more and more people are growing accustomed to self-checkout stations, which is not good news for human cashiers.
- Loan Officer, Insurance Rep, Accountant. Anytime you have questions to be answered, formula-based decisions to be made, or forms to be filled out, you have the perfect recipe for automation. Good examples of this kind of automation would be online tax platforms like Intuit’s TurboTax and consumer-facing insurance products writ large (a key reason for the upsurge in funding activity for “insurtech” startups, per a report from InsurTech News). Of course, not all of the tasks performed in these professions can be automated; however, a reduction in the personnel needed is very possible. As artificial intelligence systems advance, the impact on these professions will become even greater.
- Driver. Taxi drivers, truck drivers, and chauffeurs are all on the cusp of losing their jobs to the self-driving vehicle. True, this technology has not yet been perfected, but some remarkable advancements have been made in the field.
- Food Services Worker. From bartenders to cooks, every job in food services is fair game for automation. Fast food companies have been aggressively pursuing the possibility of automating their on-premises food production and delivery. McDonald’s is one such company, and they have already installed automated order kiosks in several of their restaurants. Even though McDonald’s says this move is not meant to replace employees, one might wonder how long it will be before we will be getting our Big Macs from a burger ATM.
- Journalist. If you regularly scan the Internet for news stories, you’ve most likely read articles written by artificial intelligence software. AI still has a long way to go, but scouring databases, finding information, and collating it into a readable story is not beyond its modern-day capabilities. This blog post from GetVoIP is an eye-opening overview of the possibilities of conversational AI, which could eventually usurp human writers and editors.
- Security Guard. At many major cities in the United States, robotic security guards, or sentries, can already be seen patrolling. If you’re imagining something like Robocop sitting at a security desk, forget about it. Think more along the lines of R2-D2. These tough little sentries can be armed with anything from thermal-imaging sensors to voice- and facial-recognition software.
- Delivery Personnel, Postal Worker. If you work for the USPS, or companies like FedEx and UPS, then you may have something to worry about. Automated mail and package-sorting systems are already being implemented. Carriers or drivers may think they’re safe, but not so fast. Driverless vehicles – the automation problem that other employed human drivers face – are still a threat to these jobs in the coming years. If your delivery truck will be able to drive itself, it’s not too far-fetched to think it will soon be able to drop off a parcel as well.
- Paralegal, Financial Analyst, Clerk. Any job that is based on gathering, sorting, analyzing, and organizing information is a good candidate for automation. Since AI software systems are already hooked into the needed data sources, they can do these jobs faster, more efficiently, and with fewer mistakes than their human counterparts. As AI progresses and evolves in the coming years, these professions will face greater job losses.
- Soldier. It’s no state secret that the U.S. military has been working on robotics and AI systems in hopes of automating weapons, fighter planes, and even ships. To an extent, they have been quite successful. With the introduction of certain smart weapons, missiles, and drones, there is no doubt the military will continue developing more of these systems. The next logical step would be to enhance the autonomous capabilities of tanks, fighter planes, and perhaps even introduce robotic ground forces. Most experts agree that these automated weapons would not replace the battlefield soldier; however, it only makes sense that fewer human soldiers would be needed in the future.
Jobs That Are Safe for Now
- Social Worker, Therapist. This type of work requires one-on-one human interaction in order to develop relationships between patient and practitioner. Robots and AI software cannot come close to providing the necessary services required for this kind of work – at least not in the foreseeable future.
- Doctor, Dentist. Watson, IBM’s AI supercomputer, was put to the test at the University of North Carolina’s School of Medicine. Data from hundreds of cancer patients were input for analysis and diagnosis. In 99% of the cases, Watson recommended the same treatment human doctors had made. Although impressive, it’s still a far cry from actually replacing people in the medical profession. Robotics and software today are mostly being developed to aid medical workers rather than replace them.
- Pilot. The question of whether a pilot’s job is safe from automation is a tricky one. On one hand, the military has been using completely autonomous aircraft like drones for years now. However, putting similar technology to use in airliners raises questions of safety. If self-driving cars still don’t have all the bugs worked out, it’s doubtful any airline would allow unmanned aircraft to fly passengers before extensive testing. On the other hand, global delivery companies are looking into using autonomous drone technology to fly cargo planes. For now, an airline pilot’s job is safe; however, a cargo plane pilot’s job – not so much.
- Police Officer. Given the security sentries mentioned earlier, it makes sense that a police officer’s job would be threatened by automation as well. Not so. An officer’s day-to-day duties require intense decision-making and interpersonal skills that AI can’t replicate. Until highly advanced AI systems can be incorporated into robotics, police officers’ jobs are safe.
- Teacher. At this point, the ability to manage the development of other human beings is not something that can be reproduced artificially. This seems to be one of the toughest tasks for even advanced technology to mimic, as it requires expertise in interpersonal relationships, human experience, and a nonrigid judgment – skills AI systems have not even come close to reproducing.
- Robotics Engineer. This one goes without saying. What job would be safer from technological advancements than the designers and engineers of that technology?
- Software Engineer. Engineers working in the field of AI have their work cut out for them. These systems will likely take decades to develop, and these software engineers will be highly sought-after. That’s not to say that all IT personnel are safe. Autonomous servers and self-programming computers are still in the development stage, but it won’t be long before many IT professionals will feel the pinch of job losses.
- Clergy. If there were a profession that would never lose a single person to automation, this would be it. Could you really imagine a robot conducting Sunday Mass or a funeral service?
It’s important to try and identify what characteristics the above jobs have in common. The ones most at risk seem to be those requiring tedious or repetitive tasks. Additionally, many of the jobs that are physical in nature seem to be susceptible to robotics and automation. And, lastly, jobs that deal with the information processing are good candidates for automation as well.
By contrast, jobs that are highly creative or require intense interpersonal skills seem to be the ones that are safe for the time being. No one knows what the future will bring, since these technological advancements seem to be developing at breakneck speeds. However, even though our technology is evolving swiftly, it will still take decades – if not longer – for the software or hardware to come close to completely replacing the human factor.
The Future of AI, Robotics, and Automation
Even though robotics and AI have already greatly impacted contemporary society in ways that are only now becoming evident, it’s important to note that these technologies are only in their infancy. They are contributing to the automation of our workforce, but where are they going from here? We can only speculate, but the truth may seem more like science fiction than reality.
Where Is Robotics Headed?
Contrary to what some people may believe, most factory jobs still can’t be accomplished by robots. Even though robots in factories are extremely useful for doing repetitive or physical work, they still lack the dexterity and flexibility needed for more intricate manufacturing. Modern robots can be a bit clunky and, at times, not very safe to be around while they’re in operation.
As engineers come up with better designs, the robots of tomorrow will be able to manipulate things with a higher level of dexterity. Also, with advancements in robotic software containing low-level AI, robots will be better able to make judgments and decisions. If these projected advancements take place, it will mean a new generation of robots that are much easier for humans to work with. It will also mean that many more robots and automated systems will be added to the factory floor and other posts.
The Next Step for AI
As we know, any software that can mimic a rudimentary form of thinking is classified as an artificial intelligence system. AI has been around for a while, but the algorithms used in the past have not been able to mimic the human mind – until now.
Recently, software engineers, designers, and data scientists have combined their skills to come up with a new technique for developing AI called “deep-learning.” In a nutshell, deep-learning techniques allow AI to draw information from several different data sources rather than rely on an algorithm that tries to take into account every possible decision. In other words, it behaves more like the human mind. Deep-learning allows AI to not only follow coded instructions, but also access information from several databases, come to its own conclusions, and learn from its mistakes.
Since AI does not rely on a hard-coded program to take on the impossible task of accounting for an unlimited number of possible situations, it is free to figure things out by itself. This may sound a little vague and far-fetched. Exactly how is an AI interface with massive amounts of data held in countless data stores able to learn and make decisions? It wouldn’t be possible without big data techniques.
Big data is the analysis of massive data sets (usually multiple terabytes in size) to uncover trends and patterns in everything from human shopping behavior to astronomical observations. It is achieved by clustering inexpensive commodity servers together to shoulder the processing load. Currently, big data systems are in use in government, scientific research, and the corporate world – anywhere massive quantities of data require trend and pattern analysis.
This is the direction AI is headed toward. It may still be too early to tell, but if deep-learning is the key to making AI systems think like humans, it will be a breakthrough on a massive scale.
The Power of AI and Robotics Combined
Eventually, the day will come when these two technologies will be capable of doing so much more than they do today. Imagine advanced AI software running a fully autonomous robot with the dexterity, flexibility, and freedom of movement of our own human bodies. Now, imagine the speed with which its computer brain will think, and the strength its robotic limbs will possess.
When that day arrives, work in the traditional sense will take on a new meaning for humans. Some may have a very gloomy outlook about this, but it may not be so bad. Think about how far technology has come since Alexander Graham Bell invented the first telephone, but also how long it took to get us to the smartphones we have today. Like many technological advancements, it took quite a while, which gave society time to adjust.
Positioning Yourself for the Future
Talk to anyone whose job is threatened by automation and you’ll likely sense some fear and frustration about the future. However, it doesn’t have to be this way. Throughout history, there have been many instances of people losing their jobs because of innovation. Humans are resilient and have always found a way to adapt, and today’s workers will discover new areas where their skills are required.
What Can I Do to Stay Relevant?
Here are four steps you can take to make sure you stay relevant to your company. The key is to be seen as an important asset to your organization rather than someone whose job is obsolete.
- Embrace the Future. This may be hard to swallow for someone whose job will eventually be replaced by automation. However, with the ultimate goal of making yourself an important asset to your company, you can’t be seen as someone too rigid or unwilling to change with the times. Instead, take a quick inventory of the proposed changes in your company and see where you can fit in. Perhaps the machine or software that is threatening your job can’t do everything by itself and needs some form of help, guidance, or maintenance. This could be a whole new career for you.
- Network Within Your Company. Networking is a buzzword we’ve heard over and over again when it comes to careers and job searches. In this case, the methods are the same, but the goals are different. It would be advantageous for you to get close to mid-level managers and decision-makers in your company, especially those involved in any changes in regard to automation. Many managers would be reluctant to discuss changes to the company that may put employees out of work. However, any information you can get to give yourself a good idea of where the company and your job may be headed is a definite advantage that can help you prepare and position yourself.
- Get Involved in the Changes. No matter which type of automation is threatening your job, make sure to get involved in the transition. Learn all you can about it, and, if possible, become an expert on the technology so you’re known as the go-to person for information. Once again, the aim is to make yourself as valuable to the company as you possibly can, and also prepare yourself for a job in a different capacity if your current job gets cut.
- Think About Training. It’s never too late to learn new things. Perhaps it’s too late for you to go back to college and get a master’s degree in robotics or AI, but there are still things you can do that are not as time-intensive. Local community colleges and online institutions offer courses and certifications that are affordable and take a fraction of the time of a full degree. A word of advice: Try to educate yourself in a subject area that’s already familiar to you. In other words, build on what you already know, and repurpose your skill set for tomorrow’s workforce.
Where Can I Get a Degree in AI or Robotics?
If your goal is to pursue a university degree in AI or robotics, there are a number of good schools in the U.S. Many of these universities have prominent engineering and computer science departments, catering to both future robotics engineers and AI developers.
Universities like Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Georgia Tech, UC Berkeley, and Stanford University have some of the finest programs in robotics and AI development. However, there are many other fine schools in the country – too many to mention here – that have similar programs. Also, depending on the area of AI or robotics you would like to get into, it’s worth exploring what the different departments of each university are offering.
For example, the Robotics and Intelligent Machines Lab at UC Berkeley focuses on reproducing animal movement so that this technology can be incorporated into robotics. At Georgia Tech’s Institute for Robotics and Intelligent Machines, the focus is on a wide range of topics like robotic mechanics, and artificial intelligence and cognition.
Technology is changing whether we like it or not. Change is inevitable, but this has always been the case. Being faced with potential job loss to a machine or a computer system can be a confusing and frightful thing. However, if you approach your situation with the right state of mind, you may find out that there are new opportunities to take the place of old ones.
Remember that fighting change is counterproductive: In the end, it won’t solve anything. Instead, see where you fit into this new, technologically advanced workforce. Take stock of yourself, build on your skills, and position yourself to take advantage of whatever new areas of employment open up in the future. Good luck.
Has your job been impacted by technology? If so, how are you coping with the situation?