We have long been used to manual work being automated. We are finally at a juncture where even knowledge work is starting to see the same fate. Weren’t engineering, medicine and law supposed to be future-proof careers?
For example, the world’s largest hedge fund Bridgewater Associates is building a piece of software to automate the day-to-day management of the firm, including hiring, firing and other strategic decision-making.
“The role of many remaining humans at the firm wouldn’t be to make individual choices but to design the criteria by which the system makes decisions, intervening when something isn’t working,”
wrote the Wall Street Journal, which spoke to five former and current employees. Knowledge work is no longer future proof and that is scary.
Automation is a trend
In 2013, Oxford University researchers estimated that 47 percent of U.S. jobs could be automated within the next two decades. A recent report from McKinsey says that while few jobs are fully automatable, 60% of occupations are at least 30% automatable. In Singapore, nearly one in five employees fears that automation will take away their jobs, a survey by recruitment firm Randstad found.
Even extremely smart and creative programmers are concerned for the sustainability of their careers. They are looking to outsmart their own craft everyday. A friend at Uber says,
"We automate ourselves out of a job everyday (using machine learning)."
A recent paper by Dana Remus (UNC School of Law) and Frank S. Levy (MIT) examines automation in the legal profession. It characterises much of the current debate regarding automation replacing knowledge work as existing at the extremes. However, it showed that though technology is undoubtedly advancing and changing the nature of legal practice, it is displacing lawyers at only a modest pace.
Will this affect YOUR job?
The common thread for automation seems to be codification. Can we specify rules that codify what we are doing?
According to "Only Humans Need Apply" - a recent book by top consultant Thomas H. Davenport and Harvard University Press editor Julia Kirby, the following are some of the signs that your job is at risk of automation:
- There are automated systems available today to do some of the core tasks
- it involves simple content transmission or analysis of existing information
- It involves tasks that can be simulated or performed virtually
- Consistency of performance is critical in it
Also check this out to see McKinsey's analysis of how much of your occupation might be automat....)
What are only humans good at?
Economists Frank Levy and Richard Murnane say in their book (The New Division of Labor: How Computers Are Creating the Next Job Market) that the great strengths of humans are expert thinking and complex communication. Erik Bynjolfsson and Andy McAfee add a third to this: ideation. These are not considered codifiable, for now.
- Expert thinking: Ability to imagine new ways of solving problems, that have not already been discovered and codified. e.g. improvising
- Complex Communication: Ability for broader communication that gives a fuller understanding of a situation than would be gained purely through transmitted information. e.g. understanding body language
This might have something to do with how our brains work vs. how machine 'thinking' works. And we don’t entirely understand how our brain works.
How can we still keep our jobs?
There a few things we can do to stay relevant as the world of work transforms.
- Use automation to your advantage and be early adopters of technology that could make us more productive. We can use it to augment ourselves (e.g. impress.ai) rather than be caught competing against it.
- Focus on the distinctly human parts of your job - expert think, complex communication and ideation - and really get good at them. I would add ‘empathy’ to this.
- Continuously keep learning so that we don't fall behind. We don't have time for universities or traditional learning to adapt as new occupations come up. Bynjolfsson and Andy McAfee specifically see a good future in careers that require:
- Applied math and statistics
- Negotiation and group dynamics
- Good writing
- Framing problems and solving open-ended problems
- Human interaction and nurturing