As with a lot of things like politics, religion and so on – the world is sharply divided between people who believe AI and Robots (or automation in general) will take more jobs away than it creates. I was drawn into this debate yet again by a few friends couple of weeks ago – so let me jot down while I still have it fresh in my mind. My crystal ball is not any more effective than yours when it comes to looking into the future – but there are a few scenarios where I do think jobs will be taken away. If your job is in one of these categories, the smart thing to do is to gain additional skills. Just to be clear – I also think there won’t be any net job losses. As always – this is all strictly my personal views on the topic, and not that of my employer.
Another way to look at this is – many companies will automate tasks and eliminate labor where they can to save costs. If you have skills that can make them earn more revenue directly or indirectly, you get to stay employed. Otherwise instead of reinvesting the savings, the company will probably treat it as profit, or keep the cash for future. The job itself might stay in many cases – but there just won’t be a need for as many people to do it. Granted – there will always be exceptions. Technology will also create a bunch of new jobs – which I will write about in another post.
I think there are at least four categories of jobs that will get disrupted soon.
1.If most of what you know is public knowledge
This is especially true for my own profession, which is consulting. In the 90s when I got out of college – there was no google. If I knew something special ( from books , professional magazines, training etc ) – a client would pay some money for me to tell them what I knew that they did not. That does not happen much any more – there is no premium for internet access . Clients and consultants both have access to similar information – so you need to know more than what is available on internet to fetch a premium. It might sound ridiculously obvious – but this is a bigger threat to (especially junior) consultants than almost anything else .
You absolutely need to stay couple of steps ahead of market to add value to a client today. Having a logically defensible point of view, knowing what others in the industry are up to, what disruptions are on the horizon, what untapped opportunities exist are all still things a client will pay a premium for.
Consultants are not the only ones at risk either. As an example – A hotel concierge function could also fall in this category. You don’t need a human to get you a restaurant reservation, check weather, know the local tourist spots and so on. However, it will be hard to replace a human who can help you score a last minute Hamilton ticket in Broadway, or one who can answer questions from four different customers in parallel and make them all feel special.
2.If your work is all about short tail questions from a customer
A lot of systems we use were not designed with end users in mind. Thanks to that, a lot of human intervention is still needed for people to use things they bought. A good part of customer service calls are about answering questions like “whats my account balance”, “can you reset my password”, “Can I set up a payment plan”, “Can I use a different credit card” etc. Automation is mature enough already to do those things without human intervention . If that is all your skill is – your job probably will be taken away soon.
But there are lot of things automation cannot do in this scenario – at least not yet. For example , talking a customer out of canceling a service is not something AI can do very effectively like a trained retention specialist. From a customer’s point of view – an automated way of resetting a password, or making a routine payment would be easier/faster than needing to talk to someone. But when you are upset with poor service , or want to talk through multiple options – there is nothing worse than listening to a machine with a long menu. Also think of this – as tech (and laws) improves all around, in most categories customers will have zero or low switching costs.
So if you are skilled at higher value service – you should be in hot demand. The money an employer saves by automating the short tail responses is what lets them invest more in higher value services. Of course we can also take a cynical view that some companies will just add it to bottom line and not bother re-investing. While that is a short term possibility, I doubt they can do it in long term without risking their whole business.
3.If you are in a job where process trumps thinking
There are several jobs where the job needs very little original thinking. The critical thinking is done by few people who designed the workflow, and not by people executing. This would include things like preparing fast food, paying invoices, checking totals, scanning documents etc. These jobs are generally at risk given they are easily automated – and probably the only reason they are still around is because of the one time cost of implementing new technology. Given all tech will eventually commoditize, this is only a temporary safety net.
The human intervention will be limited to exception processing in these workflows, especially those that involve safety, brand issues, downtime issues etc like – what if the lettuce delivered is rotten and you need to run to local grocery to buy some ? What happens if the scanner stops working the last day of the fiscal period ? Do you want to harass a customer on collecting $100, when you know in 3 months they are due for a $1000 renewal?
4.If your job is only about answering questions, and not about asking questions
Computers – and all the advances in AI and Quantum computing and whatever comes next – will keep getting better at answering more and more complex questions. There are questions a computer can answer faster and more frequently than humans today – like who was the 44th President of US? What planet is closest to earth in the solar system ? . There are questions that are really hard for computers too, where a human can often answer effortlessly – like who was the quarterback of the super bowl winning team the year the 44th President of US took office ? But over time, we should expect computers to generally be able to answer most questions we ask.
But humans are way better than computers when it comes to asking questions. At some point, computers probably can interpret a medical image better , and compare it against a million other images faster than any trained human medical expert. However, that is only a starting point – human experts are way better at asking better/unique/complex questions and explore any body of knowledge and expand on it. This is why I think no expert system will eliminate doctors – they will just make the quality of medical service a doctor can provide a lot better, and reduce mistakes. In short – We get to ask the smart questions, and mostly leave finding the answers to machines.
In various forms – this phenomena will play out in every job . People who have access to smart machines that can find better answers get to make decisions faster and cheaper than others, and that is how competitive advantages will be created in the market.
So in a nutshell – differentiation in future will be based on humans who can ask better questions than they can ask today, and machines which can answer better, faster and cheaper than they can today.
Sounds pretty straightforward, but we will of course fight this every step of the way. When horse drawn fire engines were first introduced, humans used to race them on foot to prove their superiority. We know what happened after that. For many reasons – political, legal, social and economic – just because technology can be used to effectively solve a problem does not mean that it will happen fast. So in my view, there is practically very low risk of massive unemployment any time soon. But without a doubt , every job around us will evolve in a way that human value add will become all about asking better questions and technology’s value add will be about giving better answers.
(Cross-posted @ Vijay's thoughts on all things big and small)