Artificial intelligence technology gets better every year. What jobs will be next on the chopping block as scientists design machines that can do more and more things that used to be the purview of humans only?
There’s a cottage industry in clickbait listicles of positions threatened by AI, but if there’s one job the writers never put on those lists, it’s their own job.
That may change. Late last month, 27 employees responsible for updating and editing the news homepages of MSN and the Edge browser, both products of Microsoft, were told that a month from now, they would be out of a job.
Subcontracted by Microsoft from PA Media, the 27 professional journalists, many with years of experience in the industry, were told that their services would no longer be required by Microsoft because going forward, their job would be done by AI software.
These weren’t writers, per se, or at least that wasn’t their role with Microsoft. Their responsibility, rather, was screening articles to assure that they adhered to Microsoft’s exacting content standards, as well as aligning article headlines with the content.
But writers aren’t safe either. While journalists have not faced mass layoffs, outlets such as the New York Times, Washington Post, Associated Press, Yahoo!, and Reuters already use AI software to write certain types of generic or standardized content. In other words, computers are already learning how to write.
Maybe it’s bitter grapes, but the outgoing employees questioned a computer’s ability to faultlessly do their jobs. They pointed out that failures could produce nonsensical headlines, or—worse—accidentally expose children to violent or sexually explicit content that the human editors were charged with catching.
From Science Fiction to Science Fact
The encroaching threat of AI replacements for once-secure jobs has sparked conversations ranging from the need for mass retraining to the need for universal basic income.
Critics of these plans often think that the idea of mass unemployment or human replacement is far-fetched—the purview of science fiction properties like Blade Runner, Star Trek: The Next Generation, and Ex Machina, where androids can do just about anything humans can do (often with devastating consequences).
But do you really want to count out the predictions of sci fi? Space.com astutely points out the following sci fi tech developments that actually came true:
- Voice-activated translators (the Star Trek universal translator).
- Tablet computers (handheld computers seen in 2001: A Space Odyssey).
- Space stations (also seen in 2001: A Space Odyssey).
- 3D holograms (R2D2’s projections in Star Wars: A New Hope).
- Video billboards (key sources of light pollution in Blade Runner).
- Self-driving cars (Johnny Cab in Total Recall).
- Bionic prosthetic limbs (Luke’s hand in Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back).
Self-driving cars stand out as a technology that is not quite ready for primetime, but stand to disrupt a massive workforce of professional drivers if—when—the kinks get worked out.
AI-Proofing Your Career
Is job security an obsolete idea in an AI-powered future? Is there anything the youth of today—or adults in threatened industries—can do to future-proof their career against AI redundancy?
There are a few industries where AI takeover is considered unlikely, at least for the foreseeable future if not ever. Employees of today or tomorrow who don’t want to be replaced by Alexa could look at:
Generations of creatives know that you don’t have to be Picasso, Elton John, or Stephen King to make a living in creative fields. Artists and designers, writers and composers, creative editors of film and music … These roles are in high demand in an era of conspicuous content. The idea that no one makes a living in the creative arts is as outdated as a Star Trek-inspired flip phone.
Tech leaders are experimenting with AI computers that can compose music, write poetry, or paint pictures, but we are a long ways off from machines that can match the quality of an outside-the-box human artist.
If HAL-9000 taught us anything, it taught us the problem of putting lives in the hands of a machine incapable of empathy. In fact, lack of empathy is a key obstacle in the path of autonomous cars, whose programming may condition them to swerve into traffic to avoid hitting a child pedestrian.
Many jobs depend on empathy—an ability to read people, step into their shoes, and intuit what they need. Examples include:
- Caregiving jobs like nursing.
- Social workers.
- Client-facing sales and business roles.
Movies like WALL-E envision an ecosystem of AI robots that replace skilled trade workers like plumbers, electricians, and carpenters. However, these high-paying hands-on skills are more future-proof than they might seem.
While AI computers can easily make “if-then” judgments in a code environment, they have little ability to perform the kind of “if-then” logic required to repair pipes or install home circuitry in the real world. They have even less of an ability to perform the fine motor functions these trades require, especially considering the working environments are not standardized.
This is the “if-you-can’t-beat-them-join-them” solution. AI may take over more and more roles in society, but that tech will still require programmers, operators, and overseers to implement.
Early AI automation implementation will also require human attention to check for errors (like a nonsensical headline on MSN). Want to avoid your job being replaced by AI? Pursue a job in creating, managing, or fixing AI.
Reading the Future, Between the Lines
Envisioning the future can be exciting and scary at the same time. Who wants to live in some of the dystopian wastelands predicted by the Philip K. Dicks, Isaac Asimovs, and Arthur C. Clarkes of the world?
Still, with so much science fiction transitioned into science fact, sci fi has proven itself as a genre to keep an eye on. After all, we didn’t need to invent a warp drive for Star Trek to give us the flip phone or the voice-activated computer assistant.
Want to know what technologies the future holds—or even lead the pack in developing it? Check out some of the best sci fi books produced over the past decade. Skip over the FTL drives and empathetic androids. Look for the next tablet PC, the next 3D hologram, the next thing that makes you say “I bet someone could make that!”