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AI-based technology and the future of work, part II

Is any job tech proof?


In Part I of this Insights article, I summarized current thinking about the long-term impact of AI (Artificial Intelligence)-based technology on jobs. Bottom line—if a computer can do a job, it’s going to be ‘hired’ over a more costly human worker. The AI challenge to human labor extends beyond manufacturing robots to software that performs white-collar tasks. These developments account for the worldwide decline of the middle class. In the long term, few positions will escape this dynamic.

Jobs that will disappear

The University of Oxford projects that almost half of all jobs in the Western world could be automated within the next few decades. That includes accountants, paralegal workers, technical writers and many other white-collar occupations. At the same time, image-processing software will replace lab technicians; and driverless vehicles will eradicate truck and taxi driver jobs. Eventually, airline pilots, traffic cops–even soldiers could be displaced.

While some jobs have already been eliminated, others have been conflated into robotics maintenance positions. Any non-creative work that can be broken down into routine components is at risk. AI is accelerating its capabilities to accomplish this across most economic sectors. Moreover, the cost of automation software is decreasing, making it increasingly affordable for small businesses. The greatest single obstacle to applying new AI pattern-recognition breakthroughs is the relatively slow human pace of determining the best applications.

Are there any tech-proof jobs?

Third World manufacturing and low-skilled white-collar workers will be protected, at least for a while, because automation is still more expensive in countries like India than human labor. By comparison, in developed economies like those of the U.S. and Japan, the high cost of labor has driven manufacturing automation.

We’re still decades away from autonomous AI robots taking away all our jobs. Those that require human physical presence and sophisticated technical skills may never disappear (e.g., physical therapists, dentists, athletic trainers, counselors, clergy, and high-level programmers). Jobs that require complex interpersonal and motor skills will also be protected, as with hairstylists, dentists, and surgeons. That said, computers are now being used to improve surgical outcomes, e.g., for eye, prostate, and other operations.

Of the 25 fastest dying industries, ten are in manufacturing. Retraining workers in dying industries for viable jobs is a win-win. Within the imploding coal industry, for example, many former coal miners are being trained in basic computer programming skills. This transition has been surprisingly successful because coal miners already possess considerable technical proficiency in operating equipment and making exacting calculations—skills that overlap those required in programming.

In Part III, I’ll explore the kinds of computer-human collaboration that have improved work satisfaction.

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