The Future of Jobs
By Eron Cohen
I frequently discuss technological advances with friends and family. Inevitably these discussions turn to what the future holds for jobs for kids in America (and the rest of the world). Frankly, I think there will be many jobs that will disappear completely and many more that will change dramatically. The bottom line is that there aren’t many jobs that are “safe” from being taken over by technological advances, computer software and robots. Doctors, cab drivers, pizza delivery drivers, hamburger flippers, pilots, maids and many more aren’t necessarily safe bets for employment like they are now.
I want to make it clear that although I put some of what’s below “lightly”, this may be a very serious situation for the future of our country and for the people of the world. Certainly it is a big problem for people who have lost their job or will loose their job because of automation. I honestly don’t know what will happen but I mainly see a downward spiral of job availability and this will happen very quickly over the next twenty years. Part of what motivates me to write this is the hope that some parents/schools will see the fields where there are potential jobs and guide their children into those areas.
Below I will outline some professions and why fewer people will be employed in these fields.
Certain kinds of doctors will probably find the need to look for new specialties. Insurance companies are looking for ways to save money and remote medicine and artificial intelligence are getting better. This is driving a squeeze on practicing medical doctors, and making the field less enjoyable and rewarding. There are a few major changes that are developing now that will have a major effect on this career choice.
For example, several companies are now selling remote medical “booths” where you go in and talk to a remote doctor (who could really be anywhere) via video conference. Machines in the booth take your vital signs and you explain your trouble to the doctor. Prescriptions are printed out and you’re on your way. So okay, you read that and you’re thinking, well the doctor still has a job…well, sort of, but economies of scale and the affordability of this sort of service are going to put a squeeze on the general practitioner…
Then there is Watson. You may remember Watson from Jeopardy. Watson is IBM’s artificial intelligence supercomputer that can read in information and then answer questions based on what it found. Several hospitals are testing Watson for medical diagnostics including Memorial Sloan Kettering hospital’s oncology department. The recommendations which are currently given to a patient’s doctor are very accurate and the computer never has a bad day. The system keeps learning and taking on new information from a huge variety of sources constantly so it will become even more valuable every day.
Ken Jennings, the Jeopardy Champion who first faced Watson gave the following TED talk. It is a very interesting introspection about having to face a computer opponent who quickly replaced him as the all time best Jeopardy champion:
Some jobs that people can’t even imagine being taken over by a computer are also in danger. Consider the phlebotomy robot–it does a better job than people of finding a vein and taking blood.
Growth areas: Medical careers certainly aren’t going to disappear any time soon. It seems like the safest jobs will be around developing pharmaceutical and biotechnology improvements. One source of huge growth is genetics-based cures. This is one of the factor’s driving websites like 23andme.com where people submit their DNA and information about disorders and cures that work are collated.
Jobs of all sorts that require driving are certainly going to be obsolete very soon. Florida, Nevada and California all currently allow driverless cars on the road, and several companies are taking advantage with experimental self-driving cars. Chief among them is Google who owns a fleet of robotic Toyota Priuses that have already driven hundreds of thousands of miles completely unassisted by humans. The fact is these drone cars are safer than human drivers (the only accident so far was when a car rear-ended the robotic car–it wasn’t their fault).
As these cars start to make their way onto the consumer market in the next few years, the consequences to the job market and society as we know it in the USA are going to be immense and deep. All sorts of careers will disappear. Taxi drivers, truck drivers and bus drivers will no longer be needed. No more need for valet parking–these cars will park themselves, thank you.
People who deliver food from restaurants or packages will likely be redundant as well. I picture a pizza delivery drone will drive up to your house. When it arrives, you’ll get a phone call and go out to the car. Then you’ll insert payment or prove your identity with facial recognition and a hatch will open that has your order. It will drive back to the restaurant. The same could be true for package delivery (For another possibility, see flying drones below)
By the way, consider the idea that public transportation as we know it could quickly become obsolete. Imagine small time-shared vehicles that are driven by robots. These would be very fuel efficient, very convenient and very cost effective. Since you don’t own your own car anyway, you’d just use your smartphone to call for one of the nearest cars to come pick you up and take you to your next destination. Robotic cars can make much better use of existing roads since they can communicate with each other. That means that they can follow much closer than human-driven cars can.
Cooks / Burger Flippers
Did you always think that in the worst case scenario, you could just get a job flipping burgers at McDonalds? Maybe not. Someone has created a robot that can grind and cook the meat and put together a full hamburger at a rate of over 300 sandwiches per hour. Although such a robot would not be cheap as an up-front cost, the “savings” by not having to hire a human burger-flipper could potentially be very big–especially at a busier restaurant. The creators say the robots are more efficient, more consistent and more sanitary than a human cook…and figure the cost savings could be put into higher quality food.
Another example is a recently deployed robot that makes noodles in China. It works harder and cheaper than human noodle makers.
There are other areas specific to fast food that could be cut out or cut down too. For many years now, several fast food chains have been using remote order takers. When you pull up to a drive-through at an Arby’s restaurant, there is a good chance a professional order taker, siting in a cubicle in some other state is talking to you, creating your order and then rendering it to monitor in the restaurant you’re at. Certainly there could be kiosks where people can just put in their own orders and pay with a credit card (or maybe that’s all just done from your smart phone). So perhaps we’ll see fully automated fast food restaurants in the near future. Wait, what happens when someone forgets to clean up their table? There’s a bot for that too. (See maids below) There is even a robotic bartender in the works at MIT.
Aircraft of various types have been “flying themselves” for many years. To a certain extent having human pilots (especially two of them) on board a plane is really just a formality and mostly has to do with perceived safety. (Ok, well to a certain extent actual safety too, as in the case of an emergency landing in a field–can a robotic plane determine if there are people on the field it is about to put down on?) There are also unmanned aireal vehicles (UAVs) which don’t have any people on board and are either remote controlled or follow a pre-programmed flight plan. All of this means that modern planes will not need two pilots, maybe just one on board, with potential emergency backup pilots available on the ground.
Many companies are seeing potential cost savings and other advantages from doing away with having human pilots aboard planes. For example Fedex and UPS are both hoping for regulation changes that will allow them to fly their 747s without pilots. These planes would immediately have more room and save fuel by not having the need for creature comforts required by humans. The year 2015 is when the FAA promises to release overhauled regulations that will allow for more drones to mix into the airspace. Until then, they’re going to have to wait.
Year after year, the number of pieces of mail delivered by the post office is declining by the billions. This is definitely due to the utility of email and the ease of getting information online. More and more people are using online bill payment and getting whatever they need from websites. One growth area for the post office has been package delivery. Unfortunately, this is not going to last long. First off, for the reasons listed in the “drivers” section above, packages will be able to be delivered by drones. But there is something else that’s going to drive a huge change–the new industrial revolution: 3D Printing.
|This table shows the diminishing mail volume and the corresponding diminishing number of postal employees |
year after year. In 2003, 202.1 Billion pieces of mail were handled by the post office. In 2012 it was down to
3D printing has been around for a long time, but these days it is being adopted in droves by people who want to create and print things in their home. A decent 3D printer can be had for between $500-2,000 dollars and they can print small to medium sized plastic items. People who are interested in printing things can use a 3D drawing software to create something from scratch or download premade files and print them. There are quite a few websites dedicated to sharing files to print all sorts of things such as pens, vases, tools, personalized parts and more. The reason this is going to affect the post office is that there will be many things that you would have had to order and have shipped to you in the past, which you will now simply download the file and print it out.
It sounds good to be able to say that more and more manufacturing jobs that were previously outsourced to China and other countries are now being brought back to the USA…One of the realities of this change is that the manufacturing is increasingly being performed by robots and that the robots are even cheaper than foreign labor.
The need for librarians to organize information probably is going to remain important for many years to come. The need for librarians to continue to manage traditional paper books is already diminishing. Libraries are already replacing checkout stands with radio tag readers that are much faster and more efficient. Fewer librarians will be be needed to handle checking out books, and checking in books can be done on an automated basis by running them past a reader on a conveyor belt. Someone still needs to be available to put physical books back on the shelves.
The elephant in the room is obviously that as electronic book readers, such as the Kindle, become more accepted, the need for physical books is starting to drop off. Let’s face it, there isn’t nearly as much work needed to maintain an electronic book collection–it is pretty much automated already.
Talented research librarians are definitely still valuable and will be for some time to come, but they too face an uncertain future. Artificial intelligence and search engine advances will eventually diminish the need for them as well.
The Travel Industry
Traveling to visit loved ones or for sightseeing is one thing, but business travel is another. Telecommuting and telepresence devices are making significant dents in the need for business people to meet face to face. As telepresence devices become more common and improve, business travel is going to start to fade out. This could have huge impacts on hotels, airports maybe even cities.
There are several areas of construction work that could potentially be disrupted by technology in the near future. We have 3D printers that are able to “print” housing out of concrete-like materials. View this Ted Talk on robotic construction:
The Future Jobs
It is difficult to say what fields of expertise will lead to the best job prospects. There are a few that definitely stand out and they’re all science and technology related. For example, alternative energy is going to be very important in the coming years, so studying electrical engineering or materials science would be a safe bet. Robotics related fields would also be a good bet.