Will Robots Take Our Jobs? Probably. Should we worry? You bet.


CC 2.0 “Cyborg Girl” by Raíssa Ruschel resized and cropped

Yesterday I wrote that the robots are here, because some people at the office have said autonomous vehicles will be the single most disruptive invention this century. But, if you live in a European city like me, you probably don’t own a car and don’t see what the big deal is. If you’re my colleague Jenn though, you’re crazy depressed at the idea of not being able to drive like a maniac (not that she ever does that).

From my perspective, cars that drive themselves are a MacGuffin. It’s really that automation more broadly will change a wider variety of things than we can imagine.  It is technically feasible that most of our jobs will be automated in the not-so-distant future.

Automation is coming to your office (and car) whether you like it or not, and here’s why you need to stay on top of it.

Welcoming Our Robot Overlords

Okay, okay, our jobs are not threatened by robots – yet. But, you need to be aware, intelligent software is on the rise. What I mean by intelligent software is software that helps you do all those manual things you would regularly do on a computer.  Business automation software is starting to do for office work what the automatic loom did for weaving at the start of the industrial revolution.

Right now automation tools like IFTTT require manual set-up. Wouldn’t it be better if IFTTT could set itself up?

Pretty soon, your boss’ repetitive emails asking you to post that report on your company intranet, will be picked up by a piece of software that recognizes repetitive tasks like that and ask you if it should just go ahead and do it for you in the future.

Until then, here are some general purpose automation tools available now for both consumers and businesses:

Skilled Labor, Move Out of the Way

Things that are already automated and poised to take over your qualified job:

  • Stock trading: high frequency trading algorithms sell and buy stocks really really fast. They’ll buy and sell a stock within a fraction of a second to take advantage of tiny changes in stock prices.  These trading bots buy and sell more securities than all the humans working with trading combined. In 2009 73% of all trades in the U.S. were made by high frequency trade algorithms.
  • Online marketing, sales, and lead generation: Marketing automation can coax website visitors to give up their personal information, which can then be passed on to a sales rep. How? Automated marketing can track a visitor’s interaction with a website to make data-driven judgements on which content to show next. Even if the visitor leaves the site, all is not lost, because the site can retarget them with advertising.
  • Intelligence and eavesdropping: Do I really need to say more than “NSA” ?  They can basically listen to every electronic conversation on the earth simultaneously and have computers sort through the material and point out conversations they should be aware of. Recording everything is one thing, but sifting through it is another. Kind of like the precogs in Minority Report.

What does this mean for skilled professionals?

Those of us who still have the bulk of our careers ahead of us will likely witness an increase of automated tasks. But it’s unlikely that many of these automation tools will be able to run completely unmanaged for quite a while. Phew, right?

Jobs that are not easily automated may still be transformed. New data-processing technology could break “cognitive” jobs down into smaller and smaller tasks. As well as opening the way to eventual automation this could reduce the satisfaction from such work, just as the satisfaction of making things was reduced by de-skilling and interchangeable parts in the 19th century.  … leaps in machine intelligence could create space for people to specialise in more emotive occupations, as yet unsuited to machines: a world of artists and therapists, love counsellors and yoga instructors.

The Economist

What you need to do right now:

  • Know the robots are coming
  • Stay current on the automation tools that are useful for you and your profession.

The price of remaining uninformed may mean being first to end up on the professional curb.


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