At this point, I would imagine that everyone has seen the Ex Machina movie by Alex Garland, where robots are almost indistinguishable from humans. Despite science fiction being what it is (a fiction), many believe that because Artificial Intelligence (AI) and robotics are getting increasingly better at replicating our work, human labor will no longer be valuable. Overall, they are wrong. Instead, technology is far likelier to continue creating numerous new jobs and industries, helping us better align passion with work.
Just one of the recent headlines from The Guardian reads: “Automation could destroy millions of jobs,” in which the author advocates for trade unions and government stepping in and fixing the “injustices” caused by technological progress. But while it is true that AI and automation would likely push aside some of the less productive jobs (think of the carriage drivers or typists), that is a normal course for technological advancement. And there is a long way to go before robots begin matching even fundamental human skills.
As Economist Deirdre McCloskey puts it: “[e]very 30 days, in a perfectly normal manifestation of creative destruction, over 1 percent of the [U.S.] jobs go the way of the parlor maids of 1910.” That is, each month 1.7 million jobs get permanently wiped out. The followers of Keynesian economics would likely blame the machines for taking up space in a limited pool of jobs. However, the fact that the number of job openings recently exceeded the number of people out of work suggests this is not true.
In fact, technology is one of the key reasons the labor market is not a zero-sum game and the number of new jobs always exceeds the number of lost ones. As an example, according to the McKinsey Global Institute, 30 percent of jobs created in the U.S. over the past 25 years—such as IT developer and data analyst—did not exist, or barely existed, before. So, new companies that leverage the latest technologies in AI and robotics—think of Amazon and Google—will be the ones creating millions of new openings across the country.
In a sense, new technologies reallocate—rather than destroy—jobs. And they also help us be more productive. “This technology is not about replacing jobs—we see Flippy [a burger-cooking robot] as that third hand,” said David Zito, Miso Robotics CEO.
Productivity gains, in turn, reduce overall prices, boosting living standards. John Tamny, in his book, ”The End of Work: Why Your Passion Can Become Your Job,” makes a compelling case for the increase in living standards that result from the expanding labor market for professional sports: from all levels of coaches and assistants to event managers and data analysts. “In an economy of individuals, we’re all better off when each person gets to pursue what most amplifies his unique skills and intelligence,” he concludes.
Not surprisingly, LinkedIn found that Millennials will likely switch jobs—and industries—more throughout their careers than previous generations.
But there is a caveat, although AI and automation would not lead to massive unemployment, it might affect middle-class jobs more than it does others. This comes from a well-known paradox, which states that robots find difficult things, such as mathematical calculations and data sorting, easy. And easy things difficult, making tasks that require judgment, creativity, and common sense more difficult to automate.
This means two things: 1) as automation mostly replaces jobs with routine tasks, more job opportunities would be tailored around soft skills, creativity, and logical skills, and 2) the demand for technical skills that help leverage these new technologies would grow.
As such, it is not so much a question of destroying old jobs, but the ability to adapt to many new ones and expand one’s skill set. The same Guardian article cites a survey that finds some 73 percent of workers are confident they can update their skills if automation affects their job.
One testament to the increasing value of soft skills is the growth of the service industry. The number of goods-producing jobs in the U.S. has fallen from 38 percent in 1945 to just 14 percent in 2017, according to the St. Louis Federal Reserve Bank.
In fact, soft skills are becoming increasingly important predictors of future economic success, and 92% of executives think that soft skills are equally important or more important than technical skills. Per a recent survey by Express Employment Professionals, one of the nation’s largest job agencies, the top five traits employers are currently looking for are: attitude, work ethic/integrity, communication, culture fit, and critical thinking.
Research by the Employment Policies Institute, for example, shows that early work experience (e.g. part-time jobs during high school) can help hone communication skills that translate to material career benefits for 5–10 years after graduation.
By the same token, the need for technical skills is becoming more pronounced. As an example, a piece from the Wall Street Journal with a blunt title: “The Quants Run Wall Street” explains how algorithmic-driven trading and quantitative analysts (a.k.a. quants) revamped the way trading is done in the investment world. This extends to regular employees as well. “Everyone who comes to sales and trading needs to know how to code,” said Adam Korn, a 16-year Goldman veteran. Opting for vocational-technical or community college programs to learn to use the latest technology might be a way to do it.
Despite concerns over AI and automation, human labor will only become more valuable. And with a plethora of job information at our fingertips and opportunities to acquire new skills, far fewer people will be willing to end up with low-paying jobs, in favor of the ones that offer intellectual engagement and a decent lifestyle. Overall, we shall be able to better match our passions with job opportunities, enhance our productivity, and hopefully, someday, even have self-driving vehicles that start saving us tons of time on the road.