From pet geneticists to air traders and water speculators, there is a whole new world of employment we haven’t seen yet
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Video may have killed the radio star, but it is artificial intelligence that some predict will soon do away with the postie, the web designer, and even the brain surgeon.
With the rise of robots automating roles in manufacturing, and generative AI (algorithms, such as ChatGPT, that can create new content) threatening to replace everyone from customer service assistants to journalists, is any job safe?
A report published by Goldman Sachs last month warned that roughly two-thirds of posts “are exposed to some degree of AI automation” and the tech could ultimately substitute up to a quarter of current work.
More than half a million industrial robots were installed around the world in 2021, according to the International Federation of Robotics – a 75 per cent increase in the annual rate over five years. In total, there are now almost 3.5 million of them.
60 per cent of 10,000 people surveyed for PwC’s Workforce of the Future report think “few people will have stable, long-term employment in the future”. And in the book Facing Our Futures, published in February, the futurist Nikolas Badminton forecasts that every job will be automated within the next 120 years – translators by 2024, retail workers by 2031, bestselling authors by 2049 and surgeons by 2053.
But not everyone expects the human employee to become extinct. “I really don’t think all our jobs are going to be replaced,” says Abigail Marks, professor of the future of work at Newcastle University. “Some jobs will change, there will be some new jobs. I think it’s going to be more about refinement.”
Richard Watson, futurist-in-residence at the University of Cambridge Judge Business School, puts the probability at “close to zero”. “It’s borderline hysteria at the moment,” he says. “If you look back at the past 50 or 100 years, very, very few jobs have been fully eliminated.”
Anything involving data entry or repetitive, pattern-based tasks is likely to be most at risk. “People who drive forklift trucks in warehouses really ought to retrain for another career,” says Watson.
But unlike previous revolutions that only affected jobs at the lower end of the salary scale – such as lamplighters and switchboard operators – the professional classes will be in the crosshairs of the machines this time around.
Bookkeepers and database managers may be the first to fall, while what was once seen as a well-remunerated “job of the future”, the software designer, could be edged out by self-writing computer programs.
This may all fill you with dread, but the majority of us are optimistic about the future, according to the PwC research. 73 per cent described themselves as either excited or confident about the new world of work, as it is likely to affect them, with 18 per cent worried, and 8 per simply uninterested.
Research by the McKinsey Global Institute suggests that all workers will need skills that help them fulfil three criteria: the ability to add value beyond what can be done by automated systems; to operate in a digital environment; and to continually adapt to new ways of working and new occupations.
Watson thinks workers such as plumbers – who do “very manual work that’s slightly different every single time” – will be protected, while “probably the safest job on the planet, pretty much, is a hairdresser. I know there’s a hairdressing robot, but it’s about the chat as much as the haircut. The other thing that I think is very safe indeed is management. Managing people is something that machines aren’t terribly good at and I don’t think they ever will be. You need to be human to deal with humans.”
Marks can also offer reassurance to carers, nurses, teachers, tax collectors and police officers “because these are the foundations of a civilised society”. And she predicts climate change will see us prize “more environmentally based jobs, so there’s going to be much more of a focus on countryside management, flood management and ecosystem development”. She adds: “Epidemiology is going to be a bigger thing. The pandemic is not going to be a one-off event.”
Watson says it is important not to overlook “the fundamental human needs” that global warming is likely to put into sharper focus. “Water and air are the two most precious resources we’ve got. We might have water speculators or water traders in the future. If there’s a global price for a barrel of water, they could be extremely well-paid.”
He also suggests there could be vacancies for longevity coaches (who can help an ageing population focus on improving their “healthspan”, not just their lifespan), reality counsellors (to support younger people so used to living in a computer-generated universe that they struggle with non-virtual beings), human/machine relationship coaches (teaching older generations how to relate to their robots), data detectives (finding errors and biases in code and analysing black boxes “when things go terribly wrong”) and pet geneticists (aiding you to clone your cat or order a new puppy with blue fur).
“And there may be a human version of this as well. What if in the future I want Spock ears – can we do that without doing surgery for my unborn children? It’s not impossible. And if we did ever get to some kind of super-intelligence, where robots started to be conscious – which I think is so unlikely – you can imagine a robot rights lawyer, arguing for the rights of machines.”
What will be the highest-paid roles? “I think people who are dealing with very large sums of money will always be paid large sums of money,” says Watson. “The same is true of high-end coders and lawyers, even if paralegals are going to be replaced by algorithms.
“Funnily enough,” he adds, “I think philosophy is an emerging job. I think we’re going to see more philosophers employed in very large companies and paid lots of money because a lot of the new tech has ethical questions attached to it, particularly AI and genomics.”
And among the maths, science and engineering, there could be space for artists to thrive, he predicts. “It is probably a ludicrous thought and will never happen, but I’d love to think that there will be money for the people who can articulate the human condition in the face of all this changing technology – so, incredibly good writers, painters and animators. And then there will be the metaverse architects.”
In this brave new world, more power and money will be eaten up by the tech giants who own the algorithms that control almost every aspect of our lives. For Professor David Spencer, expert on labour economics at Leeds University Business School and author of Making Light Work: An End to Toil in the Twenty-First Century, this will make how we structure society and business even more crucial.
“The goal should be to ensure that technology lightens work, in terms of hours and direct toil,” he says, “but this will require that technology is operated under conditions where workers have more of a say over its design and use.
“Those who can own technology or have a direct stake in its development are likely to benefit most. Those without any ownership stakes are likely to lose out. This is why we need to talk more about ensuring that its rewards are equally spread. Wage growth for all will depend on workers collectively gaining more bargaining power and this will depend on creating an economy that is more equal and democratic in nature.”
Watson thinks politicians need to catch up fast. “Big tech should be regulated like any other business. If you’ve created an algorithm or a line of robots that is making loads of money, tax the algorithm, tax the robots, without a shadow of a doubt.”
For employees stressed about the imminent disintegration of their careers, Marks argues that the responsibility lies elsewhere. “I don’t think the onus should necessarily be on individuals – it should be on organisations and on educational establishments to ensure that people are prepared and future-proofed, and on government to make wise predictions and allocate resources where needed.”
Watson points out that we need to upgrade an education system that is still teaching children “precisely the things that computers are inherently terribly good at – things that are based on perfect memory and recall and logic”.
But he believes it would also “be healthy if everybody did” actively ponder on their future, and refine their skills accordingly. “I think employers are really into people that have a level of creativity and particularly curiosity these days – but I think also empathy, being a good person, having a personality. We don’t teach that at school.”
The advent of AI has led many – including those in Green Party – to advocate for a universal basic income, a stipend given by the state to every citizen, regardless of their output. But Watson is not convinced that will be necessary or helpful.
“All of this technology is supposed to be creating this leisure society,” he says. “Rather weirdly, it seems to make us busier, and it’s really unclear as to why that’s happened. I think, fundamentally, we like to be busy, we feel useful, it stops us thinking about the human condition. So I’m not sure we’re going to accept doing next to nothing.
“The other thing is, I think it would be very bad for society. Work is really quite critical to people’s wellbeing. There’s a lot of rich people without jobs, and they’re not happy. Work is really important to people in terms of socialisation and meaning and purpose and self-image.
“So in a lot of instances, governments should not be allowing technology to take over certain professions or at least they shouldn’t be completely eliminated, because that wouldn’t be good for a healthy society.”
The machines may be on the march, but don’t put your feet up just yet.