When it comes to discussing the future of work, you might immediately start worrying about job security. A quick Google can offer some accessible wisdom on the topic—the jobs expected to become obsolete versus those thought to have long-term staying power. Or leave Google out of it and simply ask yourself a question: Is it conceivable that a computer could eventually do my job better than I can?
But with breakthroughs in artificial intelligence becoming more sophisticated by the hour, that question can be tricky to answer. Consider the medical profession. New research shows that computers are already outperforming doctors in a number of diagnostic situations, including scanning skin lesions for malignancies, detecting heart arrhythmias and finding early signs of Alzheimer’s. In fact, some studies suggest that, in the not-so-distant future, computers will replace 80% of what doctors do.
Does that mean, in tomorrow’s world, the medical profession will have shrunk by 80%?
The Human Touch
If it’s hard to imagine chatting with a brilliant robot at your next annual checkup, you’re not alone. Despite the impressive capabilities of medical AI, patients have major reservations about “robots in white coats” and usually prefer the idea of being treated by human beings. Why? An article in the Harvard Business Review suggests that it’s because we think of ourselves as idiosyncratic and unique. An algorithm might be good at diagnosing a common cold, but if you’re the one sniffling and sneezing, you’ll want an empathetic ear to take your unusual symptoms and special needs into account. So while computers may play an increasingly critical role in diagnosing illnesses, they’re unlikely to ever fully replace the person who relays the news.
This preference for a human connection goes well beyond the medical world. In the legal industry, it’s easy to see how effective AI could be at processing and synthesizing hundreds of pages of fine print. But while a computer might be swift at finding the perfect legal cause to support your case, you’re unlikely to want a robot to stand up in court and plead on your behalf. When we’re emotionally invested, we want a living, breathing advocate by our side.
The same logic could be applied to certain sectors of the service industry. A robot could, theoretically, replace a hairdresser, even matching the dimensions of your face to the most conceivably flattering style. But who will bring you tissues when a cut looks tragically shorter than it did in the photograph? Or comfort you when your new platinum highlights just don’t look quite.... right?
Skills: High or Low?
A common theory suggests that tomorrow’s workforce will favour high-skilled labor over low-skilled labor. Like the assembly line workers of the mid-twentieth century, those who work in low-skilled, production oriented jobs are most at risk for obsolescence. While investment in education is often touted as the solution—frequently with an emphasis on computer/digital engineering—critics argue that no amount of widespread education can mitigate massive unemployment and widening inequalities.
A competing theory suggests that a new class of work is emerging—a class known as the “service industry.” The theory builds on the importance of a human connection and the lower-skilled jobs that leverage this demand. A machine might easily replace a factory worker, but you’d be hard pressed to find a parent willing to leave their infant at a robot-run daycare. The bottom line: If the job’s most essential quality is its humanness, that job will likely never become obsolete.
Your Job Tomorrow
If you work at a desk in the corporate world and have, at very least, an undergraduate degree, you’re well-poised to tackle the challenges of a changing workforce. A highly digitized and automated workforce will be leaner in many ways, but having the skills to re-train and adapt will go a long way toward safeguarding your career.
In our next blog post in the Future of Work series, we’ll explore how human-centered design can keep you—and your job—relevant. Stay tuned!