AI and Robots Are Part of Career Planning
Planning a 40+ year career is no longer possible thanks to AI and robots.
High School is a fascinating social experiment.
Take a few hundred individuals, who are in various stages of puberty and whose brains are still in development, and lock them in a building five days a week for a few years and hope for the best. Maybe they won’t get into too many fights or get pregnant, and, on the other end, we might get functioning adults who can work and vote.
Ultimately, that’s the objective: bring teenagers to a functional level of competence to enter into society. After all, they will be the surgeons, lawyers, pilots and truck drivers that will make society function in the future. And by future, of course I mean for 10–20 years, after which machine learning algorithms will be the surgeons, lawyers, pilots and truck drivers.
Graduates looking to start their career face unprecedented professional uncertainty due to technology. Evaluating career options typically means looking at job availability, required training, salary ranges, etc., in order to reasonably assess a 45-year career trajectory. The proliferation of robotics and the field of Artificial Intelligence, including machine learning, computer vision and natural language processing, adds extra layers of uncertainty.
Which career do you want to pursue?
- Surgeon? Autonomous Robotic Surgeons have been practicing
- Lawyer? Software can check NDAs faster and better
- Radiologist? Software is apparently quite good at finding Pneumonia
- Truck driver? Taxi Driver? Bus Driver? Tesla and Daimler think robots could do it
- Customer service? Google Duplex will take your calls
- Retail? Not with Mass Mall Closures, self checkouts, no checkouts
- E-commerce warehouse worker? You’d think so, but KIVA and Boston Dynamics beg to differ
It is difficult to say whether any given profession will be eliminated, eroded, enhanced or expanded by these forces over the course of a 45-year career. What may appear as a technological enhancement initially, could soon prove to threaten an industry’s existence.
As they shoulder more tasks, robots and AI will continuously and increasingly exert downward pressure on job numbers and median salaries of the industries they touch. If a task can be done faster, better or cheaper by a machine, then the economics of a competitive industry will incentivize automation. Why maintain a dozen customer service workers when you could pay one person to manage an infinite number of self-improving chatbots? And in 15 years, you could get rid of that last person too.
For the careers that require intensive training, such as medical school and law school, students bear risk upfront, taking on student debt and years of study before they start earning. It is assumed that costs will be outweighed by the benefits of lifetime earnings, also that job numbers and wages will grow. Any technological innovations that could negatively impact job numbers or wage-growth directly affect the risk profile of any initial investment in training today.
If a new graduate expects more than half their lifetime earnings to occur in the 2nd half of their career, then robots, AI and labor market dynamics in the years 2045 to 2065 are highly relevant for current decisions. Who is to say whether an app launched in 2050 could threaten your job, at a time when you still have 15 years until retirement?
Radiologists may initially welcome new AI-based radiology apps that can scan X-ray images, compare them to a billion other X-rays and output a diagnosis. This infinitely scalable software would make radiology faster, easier and better, as it can perceive shades of grey that human eyes cannot and is continuously self-improving.
Although such an app may start as an enhancement for radiologists, it will eventually put downward pressure on both the numbers of radiologists employed and median salaries, as fewer people will be needed to run a radiology department. The result will be better radiology for humanity, but more economic inequality. The owners of the radiology app will be rich, while increasingly, radiologists will be out of work with an obsolete skillset.
The hundreds of big city jobs in software engineering, data science and robotics will be of little solace to the thousands of mid-career, unemployed radiologists. There is no guarantee that emerging industries will employ the same number of people, at the same median pay rate, in the same cities and require the same skills. The pace, location and size of professional creative destruction carries paramount importance when technological changes accelerate.
Perhaps the biggest uncertainty for people starting their careers nowadays is the speed at which professions and industries can be disrupted. Uber was founded in 2009 and by 2017 more people rode Ubers than Taxis in New York City. Taxi driver medallion prices plummeted from $1.3M to $160,000 when Uber and Lyft hit the market, leaving drivers with big debts. What will happen when Tesla eventually deploys an entirely automated fleet of taxis, undercutting both taxis and Ubers alike?
If a decade of technological progress can upend an industry, jeopardizing investments made in skills and resources, the prospect of planning a 45-year career trajectory seems increasingly daunting. The idea of a single lifetime-career diminishes in practicality as technological changes proliferate and accelerate. AI and robotics open the possibility for an increasing number of professions to be rapidly transformed or obsoleted, while making a small number of innovators wealthy.
Having a robot perform surgery, review NDAs, drive cars or scan groceries seems like a natural progression of technology. If a machine can do it faster, better and cheaper, then society as a whole benefits. A luddite is a person who is opposed to new technology or technological change. Opposing technological changes is a futile endeavour given the pace and scale of change, however, it will become increasingly obvious that AI and robots are putting continuous downward pressure on median salaries and job numbers and that finding solutions to these pressures is one of the biggest challenges of our generation. The accelerating luxurious benefits that we gain in our new robot/AI-enabled lifestyles come with accelerating social costs that must be accounted for.
Yuval Noah Harari points out that the human struggles of the past were about overcoming exploitation, whereas the struggle of the 21st Century is overcoming irrelevance. AI and robots stand to create a new “useless” class of people who will have no role to play in the emerging economic and political systems. As companies downsize, outsource, automate with greater ease and at a faster pace, the value of labour diminishes or becomes irrelevant. Unless new roles are distributed or the benefits of technology are shared broadly, the emerging useless class will be a source for social unrest.
How we address the social costs will be of increasing importance:
- Reorient the skills being taught at all levels of education to foster creativity and adaptability?
- Reevaluate what society considers to be a “good” job?
- Reassess of the student-loan industry and ROI of higher education?
- Reconsider the idea of 45-year careers? Nine successive 5-year jobs?
- Reexamine economics around employment, deflation, universal basic income?
The idea of blue collar and white collar jobs is a 20th Century perspective, as it’s becoming apparent that both collars can be equally vulnerable to automation. When planning a career in the 21st Century, young people should consider the risk of whether a given job will even have a collar in coming decades and how adaptable they can be to change collars.