Future-Proof Your Career: 5 Things You Can Do Right Now to Prepare for AI
“Watch your back — the robots are coming.”
With those words, I ended a podcast last year about Amazon’s reportedly brutal workplace culture. I was reacting to a now-famous report in The New York Times about how Amazon treated its white-collar staff. I floated a theory that the internet-born tech company did not demand so much from their employees to compete with other firms, but to compete with technology itself. The coming wave of automation, algorithms, and artificial intelligence could ultimately render most human employees redundant; perhaps Amazon was, consciously or not, measuring performance against these forces rather than against human competitors.
That, of course, was speculation (though founder Jeff Bezos definitely has AI on his mind). Pure profit motive fits just as well as a candidate explanation for the extreme office sport that is working for Amazon. Whether it plays a part in the online retail giant’s work culture, though, those same forces — automation and AI — are coming to a job near you. Even if you don’t work at Amazon, or anywhere remotely resembling it, this is your future, too.
How do you grapple with these issues — particularly if you are not a software developer or engineer? Below, I outline five strategies that anyone reading these words can implement today. These strategies won’t take years to execute or require large amounts of capital; I am not recommending you sign up to pursue an advanced degree in computer science or robotics, or that you shift your investment portfolio to reap profits from firms that develop AI. Given just a little discretionary time (and, for the second and third tip, access to very common technology), you should be able to achieve all or most of these on top of your existing workload.
Don’t get bogged down in the terminology. For our purposes, differences among strong or weak AI, or actual intelligence versus mere algorithms, are matters of degree. Let the deeper nerds fight over the terms and decide when we can call an AI an AI. While they play pedant, you can work on the more important question of how you will survive in a job market overrun with machines. Even if an artificial general intelligence is still decades away, automation is already eating away at white-collar work, and the time to prepare is now.
One: Stop Saying, “It Can’t Happen to Me.”
Matt Krisiloff of Y Combinator suggests that as much as 95% of the population “won’t be able to contribute to the workforce.” And that future is not as far off as it may seem: consulting giant McKinsey suggests that as much as 45% of paid work activities could be automated by current technologies.
Algorithms trade stocks and drive cars. Robots not only work call centers, but serve as in-the-“flesh” receptionists, as well. Software can analyze your photos and identify which pictures include which individuals, as well as which ones are showing hugs or cloudy days or coffee tables in the background. Machines write news stories about sporting events and even compose music. Computers have beaten human champions at everything from Chess to Jeopardy to Go. Some days, an automated system can even almost check you out at the grocery store.
Moving up the value chain is no guarantee of security. Is a lawyer safe? For a while, perhaps, but consider IBM’s Watson. This computer was able to search and synthesize huge amounts of information to answer natural-language puzzles it received and interpreted in real time, and do so well enough to beat human champions at Jeopardy. At some not-inconceivably-distant point in the future, couldn’t a similar system litigate a case? What about doctors? Watson itself is already being applied to medical challenges. In any event, 95% of us (those who Krisiloff suggests will be out of work, remember) can’t all be lawyers or doctors. “Creativity” is no salvation, either. Again, algorithms already write sports journalism and music. Maybe no machine will write a great novel in the near future, but even in the present you mostly can’t make a living writing novels.
In other words, your work is not “safe.” This doesn’t mean we won’t create or discover new and different work for ourselves, or find income and meaning from something other than work. But pretending to be safe from the advancing wave of automation and AI is just that: pretending.
Two: Automate Something. Anything.
Automation is coming, whether we like it or not; we may as well benefit from it, too.
You don’t have to go out and lease an industrial robot or become a computer scientist to begin to automate your work and life. Just pick a small, repetitive task or annoyance, and automate it. Learn to set up rules and filters in your email (or more advanced rules and filters, if you already use some). If you use Microsoft Office, learn to record macros to complete repetitive tasks in Word or Excel.
If you have already done some of these things, move to a higher level: learn to write simple scripts for your OS or applications. On the other end of the spectrum, if all of these steps seem daunting (or your work environment is too locked-down to implement them), try something easy at home: set up autopay for three of your monthly bills.
You may intellectually accept that automation is coming, but to actually perform the work of applying technology to a problem or process — and see the work previously required going away — offers you not only time savings, but also a visceral understanding of the potential of these technologies.
Three: Use Digital Assistants (or Use Them More)
More and more of the gadgets we buy come bundled with semi-intelligent agents, like Google Assistant, Microsoft’s Cortana, Apple’s Siri, and Amazon’s Alexa.
Ask any Siri user (or the many iPhone owners who have given up on it) about the reliability and intelligence of Apple’s digital assistant, and you’ll probably get an earful. Plenty of nerds would also be happy to point out all of the ways in which these services fall far short of being true, “hard” AI. But, as with automation, using them will give you a glimpse of what is possible. When more useful AIs arrive, the skill of dealing with these disembodied digital entities will be as important as being able to type is today. Especially in the early days (while there are still jobs for humans), collaborating with robots will be a key skill, and in the meantime heavier usage will help you keep abreast of progress in the field.
Four: Hit the Books.
AI, automation, and the threat they pose to our livelihoods are polarizing topics; you surely had an opinion about these issues, even before you began reading. That said, to cite a crude cliché, opinions are like asses: everyone has one. And if this is the longest piece you’ve read on the subject in the last 18 months, your opinion likely comes out of one.
So hit up Amazon, Audible (if you prefer listening over reading), or your local library, and find a book that appeals to you on AI, automation, and the future of work. Judge the books by their reviews and synopses, or even the covers. The important thing is not which book you pursue, but that you begin the process of educating yourself on this subject.
Reading a book or two won’t make you a genius programmer or an AI expert, but they will start to build the awareness you need to navigate the coming economic disruptions. Some authors might be hyperbolic or sensational; many may prove, in the fullness of time, to be conservative in their predictions. But they will alert you to what is already happening, get you thinking about what is possible, and show you what is ultimately at stake.
Find a problem to fix (possibly via automation?). Be the one to step forward to take on the crappy assignment. Make sure your docket is full and you have a reputation for solving what needs solved and settling what needs settled.
In the face of increasing automation and AI encroachment, there will be less and less “routine” work, and an ever-higher percentage of the work left for humans will be dealing with exceptions, special cases, and unique projects. Make that your job, and start doing that job today. Find one extra thing to volunteer for, and take care of it.
When the human headcount starts to drop in favor of automated solutions, who would you keep around — the flexible problem-solver, or the rote worker who can be outworked by the machine? Even if there are plenty of jobs at the far end of this economic dislocation, we will face an economic dislocation. Having the hustle to find things to do along the way will be a key factor in determining who finds work and who doesn’t.
The Future is Already Here.
As William Gibson famously quipped, “The future is already here — it’s just not evenly distributed.” So, too, with automation and AI. These technologies are already being deployed in a dizzying array of fields. When it will be ready to take over your role is an open question, but automation is already happening all around us. This isn’t the final word on future-proofing your career against the coming onslaught of AI, but it represents concrete first steps that you can take now. Whether you can ultimately outrun the machines in your field, the longevity of your career in the meantime depends on what you do today. Start now, and develop as much of a head start as you can, because the robots are coming.