Tim O’Reilly recently challenged us to ask “WTF?” or “What’s the future of work?” As Tim writes, “We need a focused, high-level conversation about the deep ways in which computers and their ilk are transforming how we do business, how we work, and how we live.” Martin Ford, author of the New York Times science bestseller, Rise of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of a Jobless Future agrees. Earlier this week, we added this exciting title to our library of business content. In order to open up the conversation about the future of work and learning in an increasingly automated world, we reached out to Martin with a few short questions.
What are some examples of automation altering or impacting traditional professional roles?
We already see eDiscovery algorithms automating the document review process that was once performed manually by lawyers and paralegals. Basic journalism is being automated by systems that can tap into data streams and then generate news articles that highlight the most significant or interesting information encapsulated in that data. By one account an automated news story appears every 30 seconds, often on the websites of major media companies. Currently, these systems are being used primarily in more formulaic areas like financial and sports reporting, but the technology is getting better rapidly. Some areas of medicine, particularity radiology and pathology, are also already being impacted by automation. These are, of course, all professions that require significant training, so this is beginning to upend the conventional idea that primarily low-skill jobs are susceptible to automation and that the solution for impacted workers will always be to re-train for higher skill roles.
What steps can a professional take today to prepare themselves for the threat of automation? Is it possible to “future-proof” your career? What skills will be the most in-demand over the next one or two decades?
I doubt that it’s possible to completely “future-proof” any career—certainly not if we are talking about the long term, perhaps decades from now. For the foreseeable future, the key is to focus on areas that involve characteristics like creativity, or a very strong need for direct human interaction, empathy, etc.
Jobs that require very advanced levels of mobility, flexibility and dexterity are also likely to be relatively safe. For this reason, I think health care—especially professions like nursing—are among the safest bets over the next decade or two.
There will certainly also be many opportunities for those with specific technical skills in areas like robotics and machine learning, however, many more routine technical positions, such as basic computer programming, are also likely to be significantly impacted by automation.
How do you see automation affecting education and training moving forward? Is the traditional model in imminent danger?
I would not say the danger is “imminent,” but innovations like massive online courses (MOOCs) and automated online tutors do offer a discernable path toward a major disruption. If that disruption does occur, it will be duel-edged sword: education and training may well become more accessible and affordable, but there will also be an impact on the jobs of millions of professionals who now work in the education sector.
Do you think that modern governments and societies are prepared for what may be coming?
Not at all. In terms of our political discourse this is not really on the radar at all. The current focus is on issues like immigration and to some extent globalization. In general, it is much easier to blame problems on other people than on a more abstract force like advancing technology. I do think it is critically important to initiate a conversation about the implications of the progress we are likely to see over the next couple of decades. Information technology continues to be subject to exponential progress, but our political and economic systems evolve very slowly—and the current polarized environment, of course, makes any meaningful adaptation seemingly impossible.