October 22, 2017

The robots are coming. How can you future-proof your career?

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The press and professional journals are full of articles about the impact technology is going to have on our jobs in the future. The stories range from the downright scary (technology will erode all aspects of our freedom) to the absurd (we’re all going to be out of a job). The fact that most of these stories are based on nothing more than personal belief and supposition is of no concern to the authors or media outlets covering them.

The truth is that we don’t really know what will happen. Technology has certainly leapt ahead in recent years, and developments in ‘cloud’ and ‘virtual’ technologies, coupled with cheaper access to technology and increased processor power, have made it more prevalent then ever before. However, let’s not forget that we’ve been steadily integrating technology into our daily lives for well over 100 years and that, over the past 50 years, we have become increasingly reliant on ‘robots’, both at home and in the workplace.

In the West it would be strange to visit a home that doesn’t have a washing machine, microwave or smart TV. We even have cars with assisted parking and sensor technologies for improved engine management and road handling. When we think of technology in these terms, we simply shrug our shoulders and say, ‘Yes, we’ve been living with technology for years now.’ But what’s really interesting is to reflect on how it has affected our time spent working. Improved internet access (and better access to connected technologies in general) has not reduced our time in the office. If anything, our working day seems to be getting longer.

But, technology has changed the nature of many jobs over the past 20 to 30 years. Machines can now perform many manual tasks, such as assembly line manufacturing, or repetitive sequential tasks, such as bank telling. The result has been a steady growth in the number of ‘knowledge workers’. This shift from a manual to a more cognitive type of work has manifested itself in many economic regions as a shift from a traditional physical-labour-based industry to a more professional-labour-oriented industry.

However, technology is moving fast, and recent improvements in artificial intelligence and algorithm-based problem solving mean that much of what we previously saw as higher-order problem solving is now also within reach of the common computer. These days a computer can handle tasks such as providing legal aid, performing keyhole surgery, flying a commercial jet and even driving a car. Effectively, any task that can be broken down into a logical set of steps can be modelled using software. This is the challenge we now face. For example, in the American Midwest the largest group of self-employed workers is truck drivers. What impact will the advent of the self-driving car have on these individuals? If the technology proves to be successful in a car, what’s to stop it being ported to a truck?

The key to future-proofing your career lies not in the letters after your name nor in the books you’ve studied or exams you’ve passed. As we move forward we will have to demonstrate our value, and the value we bring over technology, for the jobs we have. This will be based largely on our ability to solve complex problems and to make decisions in times of uncertainty or with an incomplete set of facts. Many jobs already require us to do this, but these skills are not limited to job types; they entail how we, as individuals, think and engage with the task at hand. Social workers, engineers, doctors, architects, builders, teachers: all need to think critically about the environment they are in, yet some work in a sequential manner, never really questioning why and how things are done. It is this aspect of an individual’s job that will be prime for automation. However, those who continue to test the way things are done, or who engage in trying to solve complex problems using unique and novel solutions, will find that this aspect of their jobs is much harder to automate.

There will always be a need for people to wash clothes, cook food, write wills and test software, but the demand for these roles has fallen dramatically (all these tasks can now be automated!). The same will no doubt soon be said for many existing professions such as nursing, construction, teaching and transport. But there will still be a need for higher-order problem solving, and this will ensure the need for real people in these roles.

So how can you ensure you remain employable for as long as possible?

The answer is not so much dependant on your industry as on how you use your mind. If you spend your time involved in repetitive tasks that require little or no real decision making, then watch out! It’s going to be cheaper to replace you with a computer. If, however, you focus on tasks that are not clearly defined, that require you to act on assumptions when  limited data are available, and that require you to make decisions involving a high degree of uncertainty, then you’re going to be fine… at least for now.

Many people collect postgraduate qualifications to build reputation and respect. However, the robots are coming, and they care little for qualifications, no matter what type of paper they are written on. To succeed in this evolving world you must be able to put into practice what you’ve learnt and continue to grow and adapt your knowledge.

 

 

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