From blue collar laborers to lab coated professionals, is any job safe from AI?

The fear: AI will exceed human performance at a wide range of activities. Huge populations will become jobless. They’ll be unable to afford life’s necessities, and even government assistance won’t replace the sense of identity, pride, and direction that come with a job. Humanity will become unmoored.

What could go wrong: Historically, technology created more jobs than it destroyed. What makes AI different is it threatens to outsource the one thing humans have always relied on for employment: their brains. Automated drive-through windows sell milkshakes. Healthcare models interpret x-rays. Natural language programs write sports news. The list is bound to grow longer as the technology becomes more capable.

Behind the fear: Massive unemployment in the past have brought severe social disruption. The U.S. Great Depression in the 1930s saw jobless rates above 34 percent. Researchers have also linked this displacement of work to the rise of nationalism that fueled both the First and Second World Wars.

How scared should you be? There’s little reason to worry in the short term. A 2017 report by McKinsey estimated that automation would replace fewer than 5 percent of the global workforce by 2030. That number comes with caveats, though. In some roles, for instance customer service and repetitive physical labor, one-third of all jobs could be taken by machines. Developing nations will be hit hardest, even though they may also experience explosive growth in high-touch fields such as education and healthcare.

What to do: Lifelong learning is a front-line defense (and a rewarding pursuit!). Education can help you stay ahead of partial automation in your current profession or change lanes if your profession is being automated away. Networked resources like blogs, research papers, online videos, and online courses can help you absorb and develop the kinds of human insights that likely will outpace machines for some time. Beyond that, work with the machines, not against them, argue Andrew McAfee and Erik Brynjolfsson in their book Race Against the Machine. Workers who don’t want to wind up on the chopping block should invest in education to keep current and find tasks that put them in a position to supervise automated systems.


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