What should my kids study so as not to be replaced by robots?

MIROSLAV PIKUS 20. 05. 2019

Many of us envy IT professionals when we know how much they earn or how companies spoil them with a range of benefits. We perceive the IT sector as being the industry of the future, while traditional manufacturing factories are a symbol of decline. We see factory workers as the ones most likely to be replaced by robots in the very near future.

That’s because we’ve heard the results from that OECD report, claiming half the jobs in OECD countries, those with “low skill requirements”, “are highly automable” or “could face substantial change”.

However we need to think differently about our own future work, or better still about our children’s future jobs. Certain basic professions that we now underestimate might change and be equally or even more in demand. There may be other jobs, on the other hand, which we currently consider “highly skilled”, that might disappear completely.

Let’s start by saying there are certain jobs that will forever be done by humans due to emotional reasons. Nurses, psychologists, pianists, priests, physiotherapists, teachers and ballet dancers are a few that fall into this category. It’s true we don’t need many ballet dancers, but rising living standards will give us more free time and even today we are already compensating for all the technology that surrounds us by demanding services that comprise human spirit or touch.  

A sensible way to take advantage of the high labour productivity caused by robots would be to change the pupil teacher ratio in classrooms from the current 30 to one, to say 10 to one, or even 4 to one. Byron Reese, author of several books on AI, says “if you lose your job due to a robot, go teach!”

Then there are those professions, which are rather marginal, so building a robot for the task would be uneconomical to say the least. People who restore antique pianos or build custom made brick fireplaces fall into this category.

For that matter, all of the professions to do with the home will not be replaced by a robot any time soon, and this includes those tradespeople who work with bricks, roofs, chimneys, paints, tiles, etc., because they require very unique creative solutions, complex movement in space, as well as knowledgeable communication with the house owner.

We also perceive that some professions, for example a waiter, or a bus driver, to be much simpler than they really are. Ask people doing these jobs how often they have a unique challenge or experience to face in their working days, something they have never seen or done before. How would a computer handle  teenagers fighting on a school bus, or a customer choking on a fish bone in a restaurant?

So in general, jobs that are creative, not repetitive, include unique experiences, and involve a lot of communication and empathy with people, will most likely not be replaced by automation anytime soon; these are the ones that your children should study, and which may not necessarily all fall under today’s “high skill” category.

We might see a robotic anesthesiologist, astronomer, or a geologist before we see an automated nurse, waiter, or bricklayer, because the latter roles are less repetitive, and require more human communication,  and so cannot easily be learned by a computer.

It’s also time to admit there are some professions, currently very respected by society, such as pharmacists, lawyers, notaries, or architects, but that these are built on knowledge that is publicly available in an electronic format and which consist of many simpler tasks. Perhaps the reason why it is not easy to become a notary is more to do with the regulation involved. Yes, they could all be one day threatened by AI.

Even art, which is often expected to be immune to the impact of computers for a long time yet, may “fall” faster than most would think. Computers are already great at copying people’s art, you may have heard about the “new Rembrandt” painting created by AI from Microsoft. In a way this is plagiarism, but how much of today’s art is truly, truly original? And we often say something is original just because we have not seen the like before, original often means “new”, and computers are great at randomization. Perhaps some parts of the creative process in the fashion business could be the first to be given to computers; and that is already happening.

Surprisingly, the IT sector may also be in danger. It’s no longer about changing broken hard disks, upgrading CPUs, or installing databases. All that can now be done automatically by the cloud. So you can’t even be sure if your kids decide to head into the IT sector, that their jobs will be completely secure.

There are different opinions about the “universal income” that some see as a solution to a jobless future. But when machines begin to replace people, we really will have to change how we evaluate human work. It won’t be based on the number of products or services, as it is now, because robots will do that for free. Maybe we’ll find inspiration in the academic or art sectors, where even today the value and meaning of work is not directly connected to money.

So what do we tell our kids? That there will be more jobs that have to do with human to human relationship or touch, and that doesn’t sound too bad at all. They will also have to study more, but isn’t that good? We will need to quickly adapt the whole of society, from education to social system, but that can also hopefully be done.

And what will happen when that super-powerful “general AI” comes to life? That is still at least very far off. Until then – let’s get to work!

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Miroslav Pikus
Chief Technology Officer


MIROSLAV PIKUS 20. 05. 2019

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