Abraham Maslow lists security as a basic human need, equivalent to food and sleep. Security is a wonderful thing to have, and most of us like to think that we have some measure of job security, if only due to the loyalty of our employers. Oxford University has assessed the likelihood of job automation, and the researchers have calculated that as many as 35% of jobs in the UK - and probably more in countries with high numbers of unskilled workers - are at risk of automation in the next twenty-five years.
So the bad news is this: if your job is repetitive and simple to code, it will probably be automated before the end of your working lifetime. The good news is that there is a very small set of skills - four, to be exact - that will effectively insure you and your career against the robot revolution.
The number one advantage that humans have over computers/robots is that we can create, and do it in very unique ways. Algorithms can be written to create catchy headlines, and render the person loading content onto Twitter redundant. However, if the person tweeting builds the content they share around creativity and innovation, they have out-performed the machines.
Engineers should be safe from automation, since a large part of their job involves making something where there was nothing, or coming up with an innovative solution to a complex problem. Likewise mechanics' skill lies in their resourcefulness and creative problem-solving. It might be faster to have robots perfor a pitstop most of the time, but at least one pitstop per race goes awry, leaving the mechanics to devise a strategy on the fly. This need to perform creative tasks under pressure puts robots at a disadvantage compared to humans.
It could even be argued that racing driving - currently under threat from initiatives like RoboRace - is safe from automation, because an algorithm can make a car go around a track in the fastest time possible with no errors, but race craft - the art of predicting a competitor's moves, finding where the weak spots are, exploiting a momentary hesitation - is highly creative and therefore very hard to code. Racing algorithm-driven cars would be very dull and processional to watch.
While basic news stories can be automated, this isn't terrible news for journalists. People would likely stop reading websites that put up only computer-generated content. A race review, for example, can be storified from highly rated tweets, but a feature piece or op-ed can't. Those require far more creativity than is possible to program into an algorithm.
Empathy is the ability to be fully present with someone else's struggle. That is, to perceive - correctly, we hope, if one has a broad emotional lexicon - what another person is thinking and feeling, connect to a similar experience in our own lives, and express understanding. This skill is the basic building block of connection. Without empathy, authentic connection is impossible.
Connection between brands and their consumers is increasingly important in the modern economy. In order to motivate people to buy from one particular brand over all its competitors, the customer needs to feel connected to that brand. For example, I buy Gillette shaving products because 1) they sponsor several athletes I support, and 2) their parent company P&G were vocally supportive of same-sex marriage in America, and therefore I like their politics. If Schick said anything about same-sex marriage, the message passed me by.
Gary Vaynerchuk talks about empathising with what the customer wants when coming up with marketing strategies. This is an important factor in the evolution of motorsport. Fans support drivers and/or teams for mostly irrational reasons. I tend to support racers I could hold a stimulating conversation with and would feel safe leaving my drink in their care if I needed to walk away from it in the bar.
Empathy is a central skill to most jobs involving people contact. Waiting staff will likely be automated, but nobody would consistently watch interviews performed by a robot. Journalists develop a rapport with racers over time, and this shows through in the kinds of questions they ask. Neil Gaiman has said that, when interviewing, one gets the best results when one asks the questions the interviewer (and therefore we assume the audience as well) really want to know the answers to. Knowing what the audience wants to know requires a high degree of empathy.
If you're in a niche field, or your job involves fine motor dexterity, chances are, you'll excape the invasion of the machines. Automation is only cost-effective if the technology can be rolled out across a wide variety of functions. Thus, an expert in a field that caters to a relatively small niche is unlikely to be automated. It's just not viable to spend millions on R&D creating a machine to replace a small group of humans who cost $50,000-100,000 per year each. Creating a machine that replaces millions of low-skill minimum-wage jobs is far more cost effective.
Fine motor functions are notoriously hard to code into a robotic device. It's not impossible, but very difficult and expensive to produce, especially on a scale where it would threaten an entire profession's existence. Let's consider people who produce car parts, by way of an example. Each person has a fairly specific brief, requiring a limited number of fine motor tasks. It might be possible to produce a machine to replace each person, but difficult to roll out across the industry, because each team would need to acquire a piece of kit worth several millions to replace a single human. Even before we consider the amount of creativity that goes into fabricating the parts that make up a car, it's a loss for the robots on cost grounds.
Becoming an expert in the technologies that come in to automate other jobs is a safe bet, career-wise. There was a time before companies had IT departments; now everybody has at least one geek on staff to fix the computers when they break. Likewise, nobody other than organisations like NASA and MIT has robotics departments at the moment. As more jobs are mechanised, robotics experts could find themselves in high demand.
Jobs with automatable skill-sets are likely to shrink to a single manager supervising a computer's work. For example, a large accounting department will likely be reduced to one or a small group of accountants monitoring the outputs of the virtual bookkeepers. While we can program computers and robots to do most of the mundane tasks, a human still needs to check for errors.
When the traffic light pitstop system came into Formula One, there were several incidents involving early releases and other technical glitches with the machinery. The release signal was changed from an algorithm to a simple button that a human could press, and the problems mostly stopped. It was the factor of human judgement and decision-making that was important in avoiding incidents. The front jack operator is unlikely to be automated any time soon.
How many of the 'safe' categories does your job incorporate? Is there a way you can build more of the above skills into your work life to ensure your career longevity? Leave a comment below!