Over the last hundred years, we’ve learnt the hard way that modern technologies both improve our world and destroy our jobs. Today it is computers (in the form of smart devices), the internet and social media that are both revolutionising how we live and transforming (and destroying) jobs at an alarming rate (see last week’s blog entry for more detail on this).
In 1900, close to half of the world’s population was formally employed in agriculture. That number has dropped to about 2% over the past century (excluding subsistence farmers), driven by massive advances in technology and agricultural practice. Similar trends are evident in manufacturing, as robots replaced humans in the world’s factories. And now it seems it is the turn of the office worker and the professional (see our previous blog entry on this topic).
Although it might take another decade or more, we are fully convinced that the signs, trends and research all point to one thing: computers are about to become more intelligent than we are, and will take any jobs that they can. We don’t expect a Matrix or Terminator style ‘uprising’ of sentient machines, but just market driven decisions that make it easy for companies to use computers instead of people whenever possible. We really do believe that this will affect not just lower level workers who do repetitive work, but also high level professionals who think their jobs are a lot more than information processing, but actually are not. This includes lawyers, engineers, doctors, accountants and more.
There are many implications to these thoughts for our businesses and organisations. But the most personal (and most therefore probably most important) implications are for us as individuals. If we take this seriously we must work out what we can do as people that computers can’t (and won’t) be able to do in the future. Therein lies job security and the careers our children should choose for their futures.
Fast Company recently ran an article that suggested four such things. I like their suggestions (although don’t think they go far enough with their examples, so have expanded them below), and I have a few of my own. I wonder what you would add to this list (please do so in the comments section below):
- Unstructured problem-solving: solving for problems in which the rules do not currently exist. Examples: a doctor diagnosing an as-yet unclassified disease, a lawyer writing a persuasive argument that sets new legal precedent, a designer creating a new web application.
- Acquiring and processing new information, deciding what is relevant in a flood of undefined phenomena. Examples: a scientist discovering the properties of a new medicine, an underwater explorer, or a journalist reporting on a story.
- Non-routine physical work. Performing complex tasks in 3-D space, from cleaning to driving to cooking to giving manicures, which is thought of as relatively low-skilled work for humans, but actually requires a combination of skill #1 and skill #2 that is still very difficult for computers to master. (Think of the complexity of walking across a busy train station or shopping mall without bumping into other people – computers/robots cannot do this).
- Being human: Expressing empathy, love, making people feel good, taking care of others, being artistic and creative for the sake of creativity, expressing emotions and vulnerability in a relatable way, making people laugh. This might even include self-awareness, personality and consciousness (three key things that science really battles to understand). The human touch is indispensable for most jobs, and in some cases, it is the entire job. In this one, humans win.
- Creativity. Coming up with novel ideas and new insights. Computers can be taught the mechanics of some of what we do in this space, but true creativity seems beyond their reach.
- Common sense. There are many definitions of common sense. For me, it mainly means our willingness to ‘break the rules’ or to put aside the strict and rigid application of rules, systems or logic, and go with some form of gut instinct. In reality what this normally means is that we select one set of principles to trump another, and go with what legal courts call the ‘reasonable person’.
What would you add to this list?
And, more importantly, how can you add more of these things to how you currently do your job – that way, you’ll be indispensable when the computers come for you.