“When I grow up, I want to be a robot!”: Is this today’s and a future kid’s best or only decent job bet? Or are all bets off, when it comes to the robot-dominated future that may force us, as an increasingly unemployable species, to fold our hand(s) and our tents?
Google CEO Eric Schmidt recently reassured us that we have nothing to fear from robots. But then he previously reassured us that if we have nothing to hide (in the criminal or moral sense), surveillance shouldn’t worry us (as though your pin number, email comments of yours taken out of context, details of your child’s unaccompanied whereabouts, or your unpublished invention blueprints shouldn’t be hidden).
Clearly, even if we don’t have to fear for our lives, our future employment is another matter entirely.
So, exactly what sorts of jobs will be available 15 years from now, when, news headlines already suggest, your 5-year-old will probably not only be unable to become a fireman, an astronaut or even a cowboy (because all those jobs will have been handed over to robots or other forms of automation and artificial intelligence), but also won’t have a hope of becoming much of anything else—unless (s)he’s a towering creative genius?
What do you do if your kid is, as most by definition are and probably will be, “average”?
The Coming “Jobliteration”
Thanks mostly to robots, AI, other automation and technological innovation, “Nearly 50 per cent of occupations today will no longer exist in 2025. New jobs will require creative intelligence, social and emotional intelligence and ability to leverage artificial intelligence. Those jobs will be immensely more fulfilling than today’s jobs…”
Yeah, right; if your kid is smart or well-educated enough to get one—allowing that these are not equivalent, if only because of the increasing unaffordability elite degrees. But one hope is that the average will be shifted upward to meet the daunting robot challenges, competition, and—of course–”opportunities”. This means not just an extension of the Flynn effect, viz., the observed global trend toward higher IQs, but also engineered interventions, such as staggering super-human memory enhancements or amplified cognitive parallel processing capabilities and speeds.
For the average kid, it may not matter much whether it’s 50% of the total number of job vacancies or 50% of the job categories that will disappear, unless, by some miracle, a handful of job categories spring up requiring hundreds of millions of workers—assuming that unlike “jobs”,the global population will continue to increase and by a lot. (The report stating that estimate, “Fast Forward 2030: The Future of Work and the Workplace”, prepared by global realty consulting giant CBRE and China-based Genesis, a property developer, forecasts occupational category declines, not numerical vacancy decreases.)
Then there are reports claiming that data in the US suggests that technology already destroys more jobs than it creates (based in part on statistical trends indicating that since 2000, GDP has been able to grow faster than employment).
Or are such frightening predictions just so much and too much dystopian ranting and fear-mongering? (But some futurologists seem more optimistic.) In any case, parents want to know now, even if their kids will find out only much later—perhaps only when it’s too late. All parents need to know, including those parents who should provide guidance for their kids, but don’t and those who do provide “guidance”, but shouldn’t, e.g., by pressuring their children to follow the path of family tradition and become a dentist.
What Parents Can Do to Prepare Their Kids for Jobliteration
I’m neither a credentialed futurologist nor a parent, but my track record with forecasts (including estimating the costs of being a dad) has been pretty good and I can still think,unassisted by a robot or brain implants. So, here’s how I would prepare my kid, if I had one. I would steer the kid’s career toward or away from the following or to a career that otherwise takes one or more of these considerations and options into account (with “YES” and “NO” designating a “thumbs-up” and “thumbs-down”, respectively, for each strategy):
- COBOT PROFESSIONS (YES): All of your distress about your son’s time wasted on video games may be needless, if, a few short years from now, semi-autonomous drones remain far more numerous than fully autonomous versions. Military and civilian employment opportunities for him may be plentiful, because of the great skills-challenge match between those thousands of hours logged on “Mortal Kombat” and the demands of aerial delivery of Air Force or Amazon “packages”. Those pattern-recognition, eye-hand coordination and multi-focus skills will be just what the jobs will require (unless the human ground-operator is, like the pilot, also replaced by a robotic system).
This means “cobot” jobs—jobs that essentially require permanent collaboration between a robot and a human, and collaboration or cooperation that is not optional for the robot (although possibly for the human). Your family’s challenge will be to anticipate, identify and track such professions —including job opportunities in the drone sector, if the semi-autonomous drone business spawns more cobot drones to spy on the cobot drones that are spying on the cobot drones that are spying on you, thereby creating more jobs for human operators. To see how that would work, check out South Park’s recent (season 18) episode, “The Magic Bush”. (Warning: infantile adult content.)
- INFORMATION RECORDING, INPUT AND RETRIEVAL (NO): Any job or career that is primarily, if not exclusively, a matter of recording, inputting and retrieving information will almost certainly be a bad choice. The range of such jobs spans simple data entry clerk to librarian and NASA asteroid monitor.
It is one thing to design or operate recording, input and retrieval systems, but quite another to be one. It is these latter categories that are unlikely to exist as occupational slots in the near future.
- MECHANICAL SKILLS (NO): Because any “mechanical” skill, e.g., machine operator, carpenter, assembly line worker, post office sorter are “deterministic”—i.e., follow clearly specificable algorithms and flow charts, they are mechanical in the sense of being programmable. The key thing to understand here is that a job doesn’t have to involve machines to be “mechanical” in this broader sense and therefore vulnerable to elimination through automation, whether robotic or not.
All that is required is that the tasks and job description can be designed and executed in conformity with a flowchart or algorithm that contains no indeterminate or vague elements lacking an algorithm themselves, such as “if yes, create an idea at this step” or “secure funding at this step” If the job can be carried out in precise linear or parallel sequences, with no “mysterious” or “intuitive” intervening steps, the odds are that at some point it will no longer exist.
For example, I asked a carpenter friend of mine whether he can think of even one carpentry task that could not, in principle, be automated. He’s still thinking—and, for now, still employed. Kids thinking of following in his tradesman’s footsteps will probably be better off thinking about a different career. (Note, however, that there may still be work for woodworking sculptors or carpenter-designers, to the extent that their “flashes of creative genius” cannot be replicated by AI software. )
- HUMAN SPECIALIST CAREERS (YES): Like replica medieval barmaids and friars working the doors and the floors in modern tourist-trap Ye Olde Banquet-type taverns and inns, some of your kids may find employment as comparable kinds of “performance artists” or “exhibits”—serving as (im)perfect embodiments or performers of distinctive and historical human attributes and/or capacities.
This doesn’t necessary mean being on display as an exhibit in a human zoo or a jar; it could involve professorships in Human Studies that are awarded on the basis of “authenticity”, first-hand knowledge and the unique capacity to be the observer and subject of an academic discipline. Human zoo curator or ethologist also comes to mind in this connection.
If that doesn’t work out, income supplementation by working as a paid human blood donor—for robot researchers, if not transfusions—may help.
- UNEMPLOYED-HUMAN SUPPORT GROUP COUNSELOR (YES): Self-explanatory, this is an extension or application of the current unemployment-counselor strategy: If you can’t find a job, try to get one helping others with the same problem. Having a human supervising the group is desirable, because of the commonalities of background, expectations, understanding, credibility, etc.
- EXPANDED JOB DESCRIPTIONS (YES): One aspect of securing future employment is to make it more secure, once it is gained. The robotic and AI revolutions may actually make some human jobs more secure while eliminating others. For example, it has been reported that, in Canada, journalism schools are now even giving specialist courses in reporting with drones. That broadens the reporting zones and circumstances, e.g., “live from the erupting crater’s depths!” In other sectors—mining, for example, drones may provide safer access to remote potential sites through up-close aerial reconnaissance.
So, parents may want to consider the future job-description expansion potential of identifiable prospective jobs for their kids.
- ROBO-AGE TEMPING (YES): Until robots and AI systems become fully self-manufacturing, self-monitoring, self-repairing and self-marketing, they will create jobs for humans, partially replacing those they destroy. In the bigger picture, those created jobs, however professional and skilled, will probably turn out to be temporary—lasting only as long as it takes the robots to make those workers, if not the jobs themselves, redundant.
For example, the US industry group Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI) estimated in 2013 that It could create more than 70,000 new jobs, including 34,000 manufacturing positions, in three years, the group forecast. In 10 years, it projects 100,000 jobs will be added.
Nice—but better, if permanent.
- EXPANDED HUMAN CAPABILITIES (YES, even if reluctant): A very smart career goal for your kids to set relates to targeting his or her supply-side skills and capabilities, rather than future jobs to be targeted. Just as getting a degree has been a core objective in career planning for decades, getting pharmaceutical, surgical, cyborg and other enhancements to stay competitive not only with other humans, but also with humanoid and other robots or AI software, is likely to become a trend—and then a requirement.
Sure, at first you will balk at having a “smart(er) chip” implanted in your child’s brain or have your fetus genetically engineered to dwarf Einstein’s intelligence even while still dwarfed by Einstein in size. But once the smirking neighbor drops by with her chipped-off-the-old-block 6-year-old who speaks and reads 35 languages, including ancient Sumerian, thanks to that implant, you’ll drag you kid to surgery the next time he yelps, “I want some chips!”
- EXPLOITATION OF ROBOT VULNERABILITIES (YES): Imagine time-travel technologies that require “chrononauts” to travel back into times when the designed energy recharge sources or repair capabilities for the extant robots didn’t exist, e.g., the medieval era. That could be one job strictly for humans. Of course, this example is fanciful—but it makes the point that there may remain or emerge some jobs that humans can do better than robots because of robot inherent vulnerabilities. A more down-to-Earth example would be space-station human physiological experiments and observation, which, by definition, robots would be unsuitable for.
- INTERPRETER SKILLS (YES): Interpretation skills are among the non-algorithmic, non-mechanical skills that pose the stiffest challenges to robotics. Whether it is a matter of interpreting an X-ray, a poem, a geopolitical initiative, a painting or customer resistance to an advertising campaign, human interpretation is more likely to be among the last, not the first skills replicated and surpassed by robots or artificial intelligence.
This fact suggests that if your child develops any interest in linguistics, a nudge toward becoming an interpreter or linguistic analyst rather than a translator may be advisable—a suggestion supported by the fact that interpreters currently make more than translators. Also, they are harder to find (because interpreting is more difficult than translating—and not just because it’s very challenging real-time performance synchronized with the speaker’s speech). The same goes for some other future analytical and interpreter skills and jobs.
- PSEUDO-CREATIVITY (NO): The already familiar mantra extolling how robots, AI and other automation will “free” us for more “creative” work can be over-stated and misstated. A lot of what is praised as creative really isn’t. So, targeting skills and jobs that involve such pseudo-creativity may be a huge mistake, if they turn out to be readily within a robot’s steely grasp or an AI program’s ambit.
Take “brain-storming”, often cited as a paradigm case of creative thinking: Consider the task of connecting seemingly unrelated, even mutually exclusive concepts, in order to find some new ideas or inventions, say, “telephone” and “camera”. Oh, wait, that’s been done. But you get the idea. The problem with the longevity of this kind of creativity is that it can be automated for and displayed by a high-speed computer. Simply have the program create all 2-term combinations of every word or concept in the database, e.g., a technical or standard dictionary. That’s the easy part, the pseudo-creative part.
The genuinely creative part is also the hardest: to derive an interpretation, application or justification for specific generated pairings. See how this relates to the previous point about “interpreter” skills? Another genuinely creative task is to generate a precious, few non-random pairings with a high probability of being exactly what is desired. So before grooming your child to be a big-payday chess champion, ask yourself, “Does chess require unique human creativity and/or distinctively human analytical skills?”
Better yet, go to www.sparkchess.com for the answer and get your butt kicked by advanced-level “Boris” (free) or the ultimate master “Guru” chess software (fee).
If you are a concerned parent, worried about whether public or private education and, in particular, school curricula will prepare your child for what I have called the coming “jobliteration”, you could try raising the question at your next PTA meeting or at least while it is still chaired by humans.
Alternatively, you may want to consider home schooling.
…Especially after the first home-schooling super-smart android tutors hit the market.