Pixabay, CC0 Public Domain
Source: Pixabay, CC0 Public Domain

Will automation kill as many jobs as is feared? A widely cited Oxford University study predicts that 47% of  jobs could be automated in the next decade of two. Price Waterhouse pegs the U.S. risk at 38%. McKinsey estimates that 45% of what people are paid for could be automated using existing technology!

An MIT study finds that 670,000 manufacturing jobs alone have already been lost to robots. The number is expected to quadruple in the next decade alone!

No less than Tesla's Elon Musk, Bill Gates, and Stephen Hawking fear the loss of jobs will cause world cataclysm.

In the coming two decades, in what situations will humans still be preferable to a robot? Might that even offer implications for how we might live today?

Let’s start with jobs likely to be eliminated, starting with the present.

Already, don’t you prefer a ATM to a teller, self-checkout to the supermarket checker, drive-through tolls rather than stop for the toll-taker, automated airline check-in rather than waiting for a clerk, shopping on Amazon rather than fighting traffic, parking, and the check-out experience with a live clerk, assuming the store has what you want in your size? Indeed, malls are closing while online retailers led by Amazon are growing.

Further killing employment, the costs of hiring a person are increasing: Increased Social Security limits and Workers’ Compensation costs, paid family leave, ObamaCare or its replacement, living wage ordinances, and employee lawsuits. All that makes employers more likely to invest in automated solutions. After all, apart from the cost saving, robots never sleep, take a day off, or come in late, Automated solutions are competent without training (and machine learning is making automation self-teaching,) make fewer errors, never quit and have to be replaced and retrained, never steal from the employer, never go on strike, never sue for sexual harassment, racial discrimination, or wrongful termination, and are never annoyed at a co-worker, customer, or you.

Of course, ever more manufacturing, if not offshored or in-shored to low-cost states, is automated. A New York Times headline reads: “U.S. Textile Plants Return, With Floors Largely Empty of People.” There already are humanoid robots that can move heavy boxes, walk in uneven snow, and get up, not annoyed when thrown to the ground. (And won't sue for an OSHA violation.) Of course, vehicle manufacture is among the leaders in roboticization. See, for example, the Tesla plant filled with robots but few people—No more “Monday morning cars” built by workers who are hung over or who come to work under-the-influence. I know someone who worked at a Ford plant and said that some assembly line workers came in stoned and deliberately misassembled cars because they thought that was funny. The future of manufacturing? Well, MIT researchers have created a robot that can 3-D print an entire house in hours! Construction workers will not find that funny..

Agriculture too is ever more automated—fewer stooping farm workers, more machines to till, plant, water, feed, and harvest. In Japan, the first fully automated lettuce farm will begin operations later this year.

As minimum wage and mandated benefits rise, fast-food restaurants especially are accelerating use of, for example, order-taking kiosks, robotic burger flippers and fry cooks, even pizza, ramen and sushi makers. Even that fail-safe job, barista, is at-risk, Bosch now makes an automated barista. Mid-range restaurants such as Olive Garden, Outback, and Applebee are replacing waiters with tabletop tablets. Will you really miss having your conversation interrupted by a waiter hawking hors de oeuvres and expecting a 15+% tip?

Clothing retail clerks beware? With Amazon's new StyleCheck, you use your phone's camera to take a photo of you in two outfits and artificial intelligence opines on which looks better on you.

Within a decade, we’ll likely have autonomous-driving trucks, buses, Ubers, and trains that are safer and less rude than human drivers. Autonomous truck drivers will never tailgate, cut you off or flip you off, drive recklessly under or not under the influence. They will never call in sick, subjecting everyone on the road to perhaps less trained substitute drivers.

But what about professional-level employment? Well, millions of people who do their own taxes rely mainly or completely on TurboTax when, in the past, they needed an accountant. Even accountants use software to increase accuracy and speed. There’s little doubt that such software will grow ever more powerful, thereby further reducing the number of accountants needed.

When I first bought shares of stock, I had to call a stock broker and pay $100 to $200 per trade for those screaming yellow-shirted floor traders to execute it. Now we buy stock online for $5 to $10 per trade, executed more accurately by a computer. Anyone want to bring back the old way? Bye-bye lots of stock broker and especially floor-trader jobs.

We’ll need some doctors, nurses, etc. but the speed and accuracy of computer-assisted diagnosis and treatment will reduce the number needed. For example, computers now diagnose cancer better than pathologists do. Robots are reducing the number of surgeons and other medical professionals needed in the operating room.

Same is true of lawyers. Human nuance is required, whether in drafting a contract or appearing in court, but fewer attorneys will be needed. Already, increasing amounts of legal work—for example, sifting through massive databases, which used to be done by teams of lawyers and paralegals—is done by computer. JP Morgan uses computers to analyze commercial loan transactions that used to require thousands of lawyer hours.

Instead of hiring architects for tens of thousands of dollars, many people are opting to spend just a few hundred bucks to instantly get any of thousands of often award-winning house plans which, if needed, can be inexpensively customized to suit. Far fewer architects needed.

But what about those millions of other jobs that require human judgment, for example, the people who review medical or Social Security claims or the marketing people who decide which approaches to use? Yes, people will always be needed to resolve disputed computer-based decisions, but that’s only a fraction of the people currently working in those fields.  Robots are already being used as security guards and to interview job applicants. The Harvard Business Review reported that Fidelity and Vanguard are working on automating back office jobs and even investment advising. Indeed, BlackRock, the world's largest fund company has replaced seven of its 53 analysts with AI-driven stock-picking.

What about journalism? The major media such as the New York Times and CNN will almost assuredly continue to pay investigative journalists. But ever more journalism jobs have been lost to the armies of "citizen journalists" willing to write for free. In addition, software such as Quill can replace some human journalists. It collects data analyzes it, and writes a story in seconds, and the articles are more comprehensive and less biased than a human journalist's. The Associated Press already uses computer-generation for corporate earnings and minor-league baseball articles.

How about teachers? Perhaps no matter how immersive, no matter how interactive, no matter how individualized, no matter how cute an artificial-intelligence-based "teacher" will be, some people, especially kids will want a live teacher to accompany a SuperTeacher humanoid. But it would seem that such an automated teacher would produce better results than that obtained by the nation's live teachers, notorious for variation in quality. (Think, for example, about the teachers you've had for math.)  Of course, automation, in the form of online courses, is already replacing live teachers and trainers. For example, GE is using online courses to train hundreds of thousands of employees.

But what about the arts? There already is computer-generated classical music. There's AI that can reproduce the style of many famous painters. Automated artists do have a limitation: At least until self-teaching computers advance enough, computers will only be able to reproduce versions of what human programmers program in. So creative jobs will remain for those rare birds who can create a cutting edge that’s not only different but superior to or at least more popular with customers than are computers’ creations. Alas, even that is at-risk. IBM's Watson has reviewed thousands of songs to identify  the sounds people like best and reviewed thousands of major publications and websites to identify the themes that move people and thus created a hit song, "Not Easy." 

But what about romance? Is the premise of the movie, Her, permanently science fiction, in which a person prefers a computerized lover, not just because “s/he’s” great in bed but is a better listener and always eager to please? At a recent London university conference on sex robots, many people already would prefer to have sex with a humanoid. Robot lovers are also being touted as useful with people having difficulty finding a partner, the disabled, and sex therapy patients. In additions, robots can be a remedy for the binary assumption—that we’re man or woman, homosexual or heterosexual—Robots can be pansexual.

There's even a virtual wife called GateBox already on the market in Japan to address the famously long-working Japanese men with too little time and energy left to meet a real spouse. Most of the first customers were men who felt they were too unattractive or disabled to met a real spouse. For now, Gatebox is rated PG but I wouldn't bet on that lasting.

Many people's experience with other people, has been a net negative, even with family members. Then there’s road rage and the boss or coworker you can’t stand. More than a few people have told me they prefer their dog to people. As technology creates an alternative to ever more of what humans do, could it be that all but the most desirable people will be ever more ostracized, even attacked? Even wilder, might people program computers to kill “undesirables?”

The remaining jobs

In such a world, how can a human justify asking to be paid to work?

Well, certainly, we’ll need some brilliant people to develop technology, plus some hands-on types to maintain them.

There will be work for people to sell complex, big-ticket, customizable items, from industrial robots to major-gifts fundraisers. A word about the latter. Nonprofits’ lifeblood is money. And not surprisingly, among the best paying non-profit jobs is development specialist, people who specialize in extracting maximum dollars from wealthy individuals and corporations.

Higher education administrator. While campus-based education will likely shrink in favor of next generations of online courses, campuses will still exist, especially serving undergraduate students, whose parents see college as a halfway house been the protection of childhood and the independence of adulthood. Campus jobs offer a stimulating environment and a relatively short work year,. Don’t have a Ph.D.? That’s often not required in, for example, student affairs: orientation, housing, and extracurriculars.

As mentioned, we’ll likely always need human judges to appeal computer decisions  For example, program evaluators should be able to find work. Whether in the private or public sector, most innovative programs require an evaluation. Could even jobs as a courtroom judge be at risk? There already is software that assesses a defendant's recidivism risk. It's not yet valid enough but it portends what's to come.

We'll need entrepreneurs to create simple small businesses to meet local needs that can't be met by computer, for example, handypersons, tutors, and personal chefs for people such as diabetics who have complicated dietary needs.

We’ll need some fiction writers, mainly for the immersive interactive environments that most apartments will have: all four walls, floor, and ceiling can be screens. That said, there already is  AI software, Angelina, that automatically develops video games. They're crude...for now.

We'll need superstar athletes and performers. Many people crave idols and neither computer-generated songs nor animated characters will quite cut it. As today, most people will do creative and athletic activities for love but, alas, not money.

China is already using robots for child and elder care, and in the U.S., Mabu is now being trialed on human patients: It can read patient facial expressions, remind about medication, and notify the doctor on noting anomaly. Nevertheless, we'll need caretakers: companions, home-health aides, even dog sitters, to provide warmth that even an infinitely patient robot can't provide.

And yes, we'll need counselors and psychotherapists. While artificial-intelligence-based therapy is under development, the level of nuance in the excellent counselor will likely be refractory to computerization. Pick a niche likely to remain in-demand: dating, parenting, eating disorders, anger management. And niches likely to burgeon: interracial relationship counseling, transgender counseling, immigrant counseling.

And we'll need or at least have politicians. But given our democracy's lack of success in picking competent, ethical politicians, 20 or 30 years from now, is it so absurd to think that an artificial Intelligence-driven humanoid candidate would run for political office? I can see it now: R2-D3 versus Chelsea Clinton. (Or can you imagine a human candidate who was gene-edited for high intelligence and ethics?). 

More broadly, it may be safest picking from one of these areas:

Government employment. Government has the deepest pockets and is relatively loose with its money because it can and does raise taxes or take on more debt. For example, the federal debt has doubled in the past eight years to $20 trillion. So it's no surprise that pay is good for government employees. Plus, government is less likely than the private sector to offshore or in-shore jobs to low-cost states. What may be surprising is that a just-released Congressional Budget Office study found that, for the same work, federal employees now are better paid than their private-sector equivalents. Of course, government isn't just federal. There's state, county, and city governments, plus a panoply of other planning and oversight entities, For example, in my locale, there are the Bay Area Transportation Management District, the Bay Air Quality Management District, and the East Bay Parks District, all with their own staffs.

Technology jobs. Per the above cited review of the literature, the future is tech-centric. Much of the basic computer programming will be done in low-cost countries: Any job in which the work product can be sent over the internet is at risk. The best shot at long-term remunerative tech employment in the U.S. will be for people with tech chops plus management, business, and/or domain expertise. For example, the SQL programmer able to successfully lead a remote team of water-supply experts, including understanding the organization’s business needs should continue to have excellent job prospects.

Health care direct providers. Because the U.S. is moving toward “covering” everyone, cost-control pressures are creating high demand for intermediate-level providers: Nurse practitioners and physician assistants rather than physicians, clinical social workers rather than psychotherapists, physical therapy assistants rather than physical therapists, nurse anesthetists rather than anesthesiologists.

Simple self-employment. Complex or capital-intensive businesses suffer from too many ways to fail and/or of running out of money to fix problems. One unanticipated setback could cause bankruptcy. Businesses more likely to succeed are simple and cost little to start and run. A few examples:

  • Tutoring, whether for children or adults, for example, on technology.
  • Health or fitness coaching.
  • Blue-collar design and implementation: carpentry, landscape, plumbing, mobile car-repair.
  • Trendy items sold near mass-transit terminals and online. An example is selling the hot local sports team's tee-shirts and hats from a cart or even walking with a tall stack of caps on an person’s head near a mass-transit stop or parking lot near a stadium.

Even in a challenging world, those career areas should remain robust.

Nevertheless, it seems clear that there won't be enough decent-paying stable jobs to go around, so we will need government-subsidized jobs that will encourage the masses to employ people, for example, as personal assistants, masseuse, manicurist, nanny, maid, and chef. We may also need free guaranteed lifetime education to enable people to keep up with the accelerating pace of change. Those may be inadequate, so we may also need a guaranteed basic income paid by the Googles and Amazons of the world, although even they probably won't have enough money to provide the literally billions of people with an even tolerable standard of living, including housing, food, transportation, and health care. We can only hope that technology's cost savings will sufficiently lower the cost of living. Certainly, most people will have to learn to live a less materialistic lifestyle and derive pleasure primarily from being productive, creative outlets, and relationships.

In the personal sphere, for us to compete with robots even in the near term, we may all have to up our game—hotheads, whiners, etc. beware. So it might not be a bad time for us to start working on ourselves—while we still have the chance.

Possible Futures

An optimistic scenario is that job loss will not be as great as the above studies predict. Indeed a study by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development projects only a 9% job loss in the next two decades. An argument for modest job loss is that it's  it's far easier to predict jobs that will be lost than jobs that haven't yet been invented yet. For example, no one predicted that Facebook in 2017 would be hiring thousands of human monitors to extirpate "objectionable content?"

A further reason  for optimism is forwarded by MIT's Ted Autor. He believes that many job losses will create new ones. For example, ATMs make it less expensive to open new branches, each of which require people.

Continuing the optimistic scenario, even if job loss is significant, that could be more than compensated for by automation's so lowering the cost of living that even if we earn little income, we'll do okay and have lots of leisure time to boot.

It's even possible that we'll embed a computer chip in our brain or use gene therapy to  enable us to accomplish more of what we want—or least feel better about what we have.

A pessimistic scenario is that there won't be enough well-paying jobs nor money from successful corporations to provide everyone with even basic housing, food, transportation and health care. That would cause greatly increasing crime and civil unrest.

Then there's s the scenario predicted by minority of credible scientists, notably Ray Kurzweil. They believe that in a few decades, we'll reach The Singularity, the point at which humanoids will be as intelligent as people. From then on, thanks to deep learning (the humanoids improving themselves based on past performance), humanoids' advantage over humans will grow and grow.

If that's true, some, like the aforementioned Stephen Hawking, Bill Gates, and Elon Musk.worry that computers could calculate that it should take control over part or even the entire world.

After all, environmentalists claim that humans are destroying the planet. So in this scenario, is it beyond the pale that hyperintelligent, superpowerful computers will attempt to save the planet by controlling huge amounts of the world's data and energy sources? Might the humanoids even decide that the world would be better without certain individuals, groups, or even all of humankind?

And if that turns out to be the outcome of world evolution, then why would it only occur on Earth? After all, the universe is infinite, which would make it highly unlikely that Earth is the only planet that evolved that way. That in turn would mean that the universe contains many planets run by humanoids. It's even possible that the humanoid cadre on some other planet was responsible for creating Earth!

The truth will probably something we can't even envision. After all, he who lives by the crystal ball usually eats broken glass.

I read a less comprehensive version of this essay on YouTube.

The Best of Marty Nemko is now in its 2nd edition. You can reach career coach Marty Nemko at mnemko@comcast.net.

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