Automation isn’t an abstraction. Headlines may suggest that robots and artificial intelligence are coming to take jobs, but, in fact, they arrived years ago, on assembly lines and in industrial kitchens. If there’s one thing humans have learned from collaborating with machines, it’s that they are excellent at very specific tasks.
This narrow specialty is both why many people have nothing to fear from the next industrial revolution and why workers in very specific roles need to diversify their skill sets. After all, the advent of Turbo Tax wasn’t good news for personal accountants. Efficiencies created redundancies, and redundancies can lead to pink slips for those who don’t prepare. Here are the job types that face automation in the near-term.
Assembly Line Workers
Robotic production lines are proliferating around the globe, specifically in Germany and Japan. Robot workers are safer and more efficient than their human counterparts and capable of performing physical tasks impossible for humans. Assembly line jobs are particularly easy to automate because the work is specialized, predictable, and repetitive. Robots are, speaking generally, bad at adapting to changing circumstances, so leadership positions within factories aren’t at risk, but anyone on the floor probably is.
Drivers and Truckers
Self-driving cars are here. It likely won’t be long before they’re made available for consumer purchase. In fact, some estimates predict that, by 2030, 60 percent of U.S. auto sales will be made up of self-driving vehicles. Like automated factories, these vehicles are an all-around better and safer alternative to having humans behind the wheel.
And that means people like truckers and Uber or taxi drivers will be outbid and outdone by these self-driving vehicles. Self-driven trucks will be able to press on indefinitely, without fear of driver exhaustion. The same is true of Ubers or taxis. Uber, for its part, has said that its future self-driving fleet will net no job loss because of the increased maintenance that will be required for cars that run all day. But such a claim is only questionably true. And, even accepting its veracity, what about when the mechanics become robots, too?
Closely related to driving and trucking is the business of insuring those cars and trucks. Under current law, you’re required to purchase insurance for a car if you have one. That’s a good thing, because statistically speaking you’re likely to be in at least a couple accidents throughout your life. But self-driving cars are set to reduce accidents by as much as 90 percent. It’s even possible that, sometime in the not-too-distant future (maybe 2030 when a majority of cars sold are self-driven), instances of accidents will decline to near zero. What, then, becomes of car insurance?
Warren Buffet, CEO of the company that owns Geico, shares this very concern. “Anything that makes cars safer is very pro-social, and it’s bad for the auto insurance industry,” he said on CNBC in May. “But nevertheless, the auto insurance industry has always worked on making cars safer. I mean, they’ve led the way on things like seat belts and all that. But if there are no accidents, then no need for insurance.” Words to remember for anyone considering a career in this branch of the insurance industry.
In the latter half of 2016, McDonald’s began rolling out self-service kiosks in some of its locations. Customers can order and pay at these stations, all without talking to a single human being. The only interaction with a person comes in the moment that the customer receives the food.
McDonald’s has said that employees need not worry about these kiosks taking their jobs, but the longevity of that promise is up for debate. What happens when A.I. becomes able to cook food and roll it out to customers on a little conveyor belt? The restaurant, in that case, would need to be staffed by a single person, at most, just to clean up and make sure people aren’t stealing anything.
This might sound like science fiction now, but so did driverless cars ten years ago. President Donald Trump’s former labor secretary nominee, Andrew Puzder, expressed support of job automation. Puzder is a fast foot executive, and acknowledges that automated workers would be both cheaper and more efficient. In ten years, high school teachers are likely going to have to hand out something other than a McDonald’s application when you flunk science.
It may not be a flagship industry, but language translation is a skill that can approach the realm of art for many. Translating things like books, movies, and real-time United Nations speeches is a job currently done by highly skilled, well-trained individuals. The trouble with translating languages, especially the more complex ones like Chinese or English, has been conveying the connotations and subtleties that make the real difference between proficiency and fluency. Because of this, the task of translating anything more than a webpage has been left up to humans. But it might not be that way for long.
Google Translate recently upgraded its software to receive a stunning accuracy boost. The MIT Technology Review reported on a Google paper that recorded the results of a study in which the new software translated “from English into Spanish, French, and Chinese, and from each of those languages into English. When people fluent in two languages were asked to compare the work of Google’s new system against that of human translators, they sometimes couldn’t see much difference between them.”
While it’s not 100 percent of the way there yet, Google’s translating technology is only set to keep improving. As it becomes capable of capturing the nuance of a fluent speaker or writer, it could take over the job of translating works of literature.
And there is always the potential to combine this technology with Google’s already impressive speech-to-text software, which could send those U.N. translators home with a pink slip, too.
Similar in essence to manufacturing, data entry represents a very predictable form of work that’s low on problem solving and creativity. In short, the job loss here will result from automated data collections systems, which in turn will ease the automatic entry of that data into a backlog or database.
But it isn’t just people with “data entry” in their job title who should be keeping an eye on this trend. There are a multitude of jobs that require, to varying degrees, tasks of entering data or performing other kinds of cataloging: Librarians, accountants, insurers (again), financial advisers, public opinion pollsters, telemarketers (who also have to fear replacement altogether), payroll workers, and whole slews of government jobs. The risk of losing your job to this kind of automation of course depends on the degree to which these sorts of tasks fill up your day. Still, it’s hard to imagine that the efficiency boost from automatic data entry won’t result in some level of downsizing across the board.
Already, in just these six areas, automation will have impacted or eliminated the jobs of a huge portion of the American population. Manufacturers and truckers alone account for around 20 million people — well over 10 percent of the workforce. Also under threat are work areas like retail and farming, which have begun to see their own iteration of encroaching automation.
The impact automation will have in the coming years is undeniable, and solutions will need to be found to provide for the welfare of those whose jobs no longer exist. Their numbers will grow exponentially, and an economic crisis could be upon us if nothing changes. Fortunately, people are already searching for innovative responses. One of the most prominent of these is a universal basic income, an idea people are already staring to get behind.