Upwork just released our quarterly list of the 20 fastest-growing skills in the U.S. freelance market.
This list is a snapshot of what companies most value and need in their freelancers, and it reflects the top tech and business trends of today.
But I’ve been thinking about the future of work as well as the present day. I just returned from the World Economic Forum meeting in China, where I caught a glimpse of the kinds of technologies that will shape our world in five to ten years.
Chief among those are virtual reality, artificial intelligence, and robotics.
Professionals who want to get ahead of the curve would do well to develop skills that complement the future tech trends outlined by these demonstrations:
- Augmented virtual reality: Leap Motion’s compelling “Orion” demo puts front-facing sensors and cameras on a virtual-reality headset. Those sensors capture the position of your hands in real time, which in turn allows Leap Motion to put a virtual analog of those hands into its virtual world — where they can create cubes and spheres, pick up and manipulate objects, and engage with the virtual world. This demo is powerful because it shows the future of virtual reality: Not just for games, but for getting collaborative work done.
- Artificial emotional intelligence: A Carnegie-Mellon project, the Socially Aware Robot Assistant, or SARA, picks up on physical and verbal cues to determine whether the human being is comfortable or not. It adjusts its responses based on how much rapport it is developing with the human. At a conference like WEF, Sara can help facilitate introductions between conference goers — and because it has a level of “emotional intelligence,” it can be more effective at that job than many humans!
- Humanoid robots: Embodying Siri-like capabilities in a realistic-looking humanoid robot produces a disturbingly uncanny effect, I found. But others at the WEF were quite taken by this robot. Some were even flirting with her!
- Robot learning for complex skills: The intersection of artificial intelligence and robotics is already producing some amazing results, like humanoid robots that learn how to walk and open doors by applying AI to the problem of moving their limbs effectively — much as human infants learn. At WEF, I watched a demo of a non-humanoid robots, including one called MyBot that was learning how to make a cup of coffee. For humans, that’s a simple task, but it combines hundreds of smaller tasks, each of which has to be learned. More impressively, another robot called PiBot is learning to fly a plane eventually, starting with piloting a flight simulator. To program a robot to do this would be complex, but with the right learning algorithms, a robot could learn on its own much more efficiently.
- Remote control via brain-computer interfaces: Sphero is a remote-controlled robot sphere that you might have encountered at a toy store recently (it’s the basis for a popular Star Wars-themed robot, BB8). Normally Sphero is controlled by smartphone. At WEF, though, I got to see a demo of this robot ball being controlled by brainwaves. People would put on a brainwave-reading headset and be told “move the ball down the track.” It was hard to do at first, but after concentrating for a few minutes, you could actually get the ball to move. It’s a pretty simple demo for now (the ball only moves in one direction), but it’s intriguing to imagine future brain-controlled interfaces as this technology matures.
So what skills should freelancers concentrate on today, if they want to participate in a future where AI, robotics, VR, and even brain-computer interfaces have become the mainstream technologies? A few of the top 20 skills identified in Upwork’s report are relevant:
- Java: Still one of the world’s most popular programming languages, Java is frequently used by artificial intelligence researchers and the makers of robots.
- MongoDB: The key to the rapid advance in AI over the past five years has been deep learning systems built by processing huge amounts of data. And in order to process data, you need to collect it and store it. MongoDB is one of the most popular database technologies for storing unstructured “NoSQL” data.
- Data mining: A subset of machine learning, data mining is all about extracting relevant and interesting insights out of huge, disorganized datasets. Learn how to do data mining now, and you’ll be in a good position to play a key role in tomorrow’s tech world.
What other skills do you see as critical to our high-tech future? Let me know with your responses to this post!