Is your child prepared for the future? Part 2

Welcome back! This is part 2 of a three-part series on how the future might mess with our beloved kids. In Part 1 we explored success, satisfaction, motivation, and passion, and how confabulation of those concepts might not bode well. Read it here.

 Flickr @jmorgan

Flickr @jmorgan

Is your child prepared for the future? Part 2

The robots are coming and there's nothing you can do about it.

Don't worry, this is not going to be a Nostradamian, end-of-days, apocalyptic vision statement. The Singularity or a potential Robopacalypse from a malevolent, sentient, artificial intelligence--while interesting and terrifying to explore--is not our purpose here. Robots are.

The robots are coming and there's nothing you can do about it. Automation will continue to advance at a pace heretofore unimaginable, and it will turn some industries upside-down, and completely eliminate others. We are at the cusp of a new machine-age, a time when humans will do less and less of what we currently think of as "work." It is actually conceivable that automation will advance to a point where there isn't enough work to go around! This is the impetus behind proposals for a universal, basic income (a government provided stipend to every person): to prevent starvation and revolt if people don't have the skills to compete with robots.

Does this sound crazy? Well the Financial Times awarded the 2015 book of the year title to Rise of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of a Jobless Futureby Martin Ford. People a lot more knowledgeable than you or me are concerned about this.

This isn't a new phenomenon. Automation has been “stealing” jobs and causing industry upheaval for hundreds of years. Two easy examples:

  • How many people do you know that work on farms? Just a few decades ago, most Americans worked on farms, now less than 1% do.
  • How many people do you know that work in factories? Jobs in manufacturing have decreased by 30 percent in only the last 15 years!

Heck, there are lots of jobs that have essentially disappeared even in my short lifetime: telephone operators, car assembly workers, travel agents, bank tellers...

 Tesla's nearly human-free assembly plant. @jurvetson via Flickr

Tesla's nearly human-free assembly plant. @jurvetson via Flickr

Generally, the jobs that automation has replaced have been those involving routine tasks. Humans are flawed, irrational animals, and software and hardware (collectively, automation; descriptively, robots) can routinely do a much better job than us. Considering the exponential increase in technology, and the advancements occurring in robotics, it is likely that robots will literally be able to do any physical task that humans can do, faster, better, and cheaper, and that this nexus will likely happen in the next couple of decades.

Did you scoff?

Consider this: researchers at Oxford (they are kinda smart there) published a report in 2013 that nearly half of the jobs in the USA are at a high risk of automation. HALF. The report is titled “The Future of Employment” and the take home message is ugly: if you are in one of those automatable jobs, you will likely be eliminated by a robot soon, and unless you can do something in one of the non-automatable jobs, you may never work again. More than 100 million people could be out of work in the next few decades.


I actually think that the Oxford study could be optimistic. For example, they list physicians as a “safe” career. However, doctors are basically trained to be computers:

  1. assess patient
  2. take in data from patient self assessment
  3. order medical tests for differential diagnosis
  4. use data to create a probabilistic diagnosis
  5. assign therapy based on established standards of care

That sounds like a perfectly automatable job to me! And I am not the only one that thinks doctors will be replaced by computers. (We’ll come back to this example in a moment.)

Perhaps you just rejected the possibility that doctors could be automated out of a career. Or perhaps you just thought to yourself “robots will never be able to do MY job.” For that sentiment, author Kevin Kelly created The Seven Stages of Robot Replacement:

Stage 1: A robot/computer cannot possibly do the tasks I do.

Stage 2: OK, it can do a lot of them, but it can’t do everything I do.

Stage 3: OK, it can do everything I do, except it needs me when it breaks down, which is often.

Stage 4: OK, it operates flawlessly on routine stuff, but I need to train it for new tasks.

Stage 5: OK, it can have my old boring job, because it’s obvious that was not a job that humans were meant to do.

Stage 6: Wow, now that robots are doing my old job, my new job is much more fun and pays more!

Stage 7: I am so glad a robot/computer cannot possibly do what I do now.

If Stage 7 sounds a lot like Stage 1, I'm pretty sure that’s intentional.

As described by Ford in Rise of the Robots:

Could another person learn to do your job by studying a detailed record of everything you’ve done in the past? Or could someone become proficient by repeating the tasks you’ve already completed, in the way that a student might take practice tests to prepare for an exam? If so, then there’s a good chance that an algorithm may someday be able to learn to do much, or all, of your job.

Companies are pushing as hard as they can towards this vision, exemplified by IBM's recent CES presentation on the ways in which they are developing their AI robot, Watson. Perhap's the most disconcerting, Watson, once with the visage of an inhuman monolith on Jeopardy, is now powering Softbank's humanoid robot, Pepper. Matthew Herper of Forbes made the chilling tossaway statement: "Pepper [with Watson AI] could be the bank teller of the future, taking over human customer service jobs."

Watson on Jeopardy.jpg

So if we assume that anything that can be automated, will be automated, the operative question is: what cannot be automated? Or, since the answer to that question is probably (disturbingly) "everything can and will be automated," then what jobs and job functions are least likely to be automated soon? That is, what tasks will be the last to be delegated to robots?

And the answer for that is clear: human interactions.

Interacting with other humans involves emotional, social, and creative intelligence that is beyond our current ability to simulate in a computer. Originality, ideation, art, and performing are all areas that are unlikely to be widely automated in the near future, and when eventually automated the products are likely to be resisted by humans.

Even now, robots can make music, paint, design recipes, and write the news.

Yet people are not likely to value creations by a robot as equal to humans. We have this quirky tendency to ascribe a sacredness to things created by other people.

By way of illustration, picture the Mona Lisa in your mind. Pretend that there is a robot that can recreate the Mona Lisa down to the atomic and even sub-atomic level, that every quark in that material would be recreated, including any molecules of skin or sweat from Leonardo himself. Now, if I told you could could have either one, which one would you choose? Right. Now, if the robot made that copy, but then threw the original into a fire and burned it up, would something have been lost?


This is the opposite of the Hitler's Sweater issue: a majority of people wouldn’t wear a sweater worn by Hitler, regardless of whether it had been washed or subsequently worn by Mother Teresa! This is, of course, profoundly irrational, because a sweater is a material thing, and the ethics and morals of previous owners are not transferable to the material object. And yet we perceive just that, despite the impossibility. It’s why George Constanza was persuaded to buy a car after he heard it was previously owned by Jo(h)n Voigt in an episode of Seinfeld.

So even though we can assume that we will eventually create a human-like machine intelligence that can create, communicate, and emote as well as a human, it is unlikely that we will value a robot's creations and empathy the same way we do a human's.

Those fields that involve human interactions, where empathy, negotiation, and persuasion are pivotal, are likely to have the most longevity. Social sector jobs are likely to have most of these: healthcare, education, community service, arts, government.

The Oxford Study also asserts that management, business, and finance occupations--because they involve social intelligence--are unlikely to be automated soon. In other words, your manager is not likely to become a robot.

Returning to the doctor example above, while its certainly possible if not probable that many doctors could be replaced by automation, the human connection part of healthcare isn’t likely to go away, and could increase in the event of more “heartless” automation. Indeed, the future looks terrific for physician assistants and nurses, those that interact closest with patients…those that make the human connection.

An interesting counterpoint to medicine is the field of law. The Oxford Study suggests that paralegals and legal assistants are highly likely to be automated, but that the attorneys themselves are dependent upon human social interactions, and thus unlikely to be replaced soon. The automation risk for professionals in law is the hierarchical inverse of those in medicine.

Humans will always value being and interacting with other humans. We evolved to be social creatures. Those careers where we can be social, were we exhibit imperfections, nuance, art, and emotion, those are the professions that hold the most promise for value creation in the future.

Machines won't replace human connection anytime soon.

I don't know about you, but I don't want a hug from a robot...

 @techsavvyed via Flickr

@techsavvyed via Flickr

Up next in Part 3: how should a young adult structure their education and training to have the best shot at a sustainable career. Read it now!