Last night, Apple unveiled its latest raft of new gadgets. Quicker and slicker than their predecessors, the company’s annual showcase has become a ceremony which marks the fact that today’s tech will be on tomorrow’s scrapheap.
But much like their old products, Apple’s technicians – organic and fallible – are also at risk of obsolescence. In fact, it is estimated that around 70 per cent of the jobs done by humans today will have become automated by 2100.
Known by economists as “technological unemployment”, white-collar workers are particularly likely to be usurped, as machines become cheaper and more efficient. A survey by CareerBuilder and Economic Modelling Specialists International last year found that IT and financial services were the two areas where most workers are being de-skilled and turfed out.
But experts say that some skills are more “robot-resistant” than others. So which ones could save your bacon?
A 2013 study by Oxford University found that jobs requiring creative intelligence are reasonably resistant to automation. Creativity, the authors explain, involves coming up with ideas which are both “novel and valuable”. “Novel” work, like writing prose, is not beyond machines. It simply requires a rich source of knowledge and the ability to produce unfamiliar combinations of familiar ideas. In fact, in March this year, the Associated Press announced that it would be using “automation technology” to write its coverage of college sports in the US. The platform, Wordsmith, is capable of analysing game data and using it to write a simple recap of events.
But “valuable” work may still be a long way off automation. Wordsmith’s simple prose is a far cry from the flourishes of Norman Mailer, who described George Foreman falling to defeat “like a six-foot 60 year-old butler who has just heard tragic news,” in his fight with Muhammad Ali.
While processors can use data from sites like Twitter to keep abreast of trends among users, human tastes are very fickle. Learning to appreciate cultural sensitivity and appeal to those tastes is a hard task indeed.
BIG DATA BUFF
Given that one of the principle functions of computers is to perform complex calculations quickly, you might think that the human brain will no longer need to cope with mathematics or statistical analysis.
But MIT Sloan’s Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee disagree. “Knowing which statistical analyses to conduct and how to interpret their results is more valuable than ever,” they told the MIT Sloan Management Review in 2012. AI is able to execute routine tasks flawlessly, but it remains incapable of thinking abstractly about how best to prioritise and apply its own abilities.
As mobile technology and the Internet of Things expand and develop, a glut of data showing consumers’ personal preferences will emerge. Workers equipped to understand this data, and to ask the right questions of it, are likely to avoid the chop.
STEERING THE SHIP
“Computers are bad at finding patterns, communicating with people, and making decisions” writes The Atlantic’s Derek Thompson. These deficiencies, he expects, will ensure the survival of managers charged with strategy.
The hiring process has been vastly improved by algorithms, but machines are still unable to ask adjoining questions like “How might this idea work in a different context?”, or deal with open-ended problems outside of information processing. “It’s a major feature of educational systems like Montessori,” said Brynjolfsson and McAfee. “This might explain why Montessori graduates are so common among the elite of the tech industry — the masters of racing with machines.”
And the importance of good management is likely to extend beyond the C-suite. Finding ways to organise, optimise and fix the robots will become increasingly important at every level.
As long as we can accept that our talents will need to change, then the human workforce will adapt into new roles. Even as our talents become as outdated as last year’s iPhone.