Higher Thinking: AI, Automation and the Future of Jobs

As a steady stream of disruptive new tech goes mainstream, what will happen to our jobs? Find out here.

ThinkstockPhotos-900165060-(1)Picture this on a not-so-distant future Monday morning.

Your alarm wakes you up and instantly your shower starts heating to your desired temperature. As you make your way into the bathroom your virtual assistant reads you the day’s top headlines. When you step out of the shower your coffee maker kicks on and starts making your morning latte. When you’re dressed and ready to go, you hop into your stylish autonomous car and it takes you straight to work as you go through your inbox. Sound like a scene from The Jetsons? Well, it’s a futuristic dream that’s quickly becoming a reality as new and evolving technologies like automation and artificial intelligence begin to creep into our everyday lives. Of course, we’ve been here before with the Industrial Revolution. And, as history repeats itself, so do our concerns. With the onset of this new technology becoming mainstream, what will happen to our jobs?

What the Futurists Say

While it’s difficult to predict the exact impact of technology across the entire job market, there is no doubt that some occupations are at risk as companies move toward reliable automation of certain tasks. Most experts in the field, though, believe that the digital economy will feature new roles working in concert with intelligent systems.

Well known author and futurist Martin Ford believes that while artificial intelligence and robotics are going to have a dramatic impact on the job market, it will be different this time relative to what we’ve seen in the past.

“The key is that the machines, in a limited sense, are beginning to think. I mean, they’re taking on cognitive capabilities. So, what that means is that technology is finally encroaching on that fundamental capability that so far has allowed us to really stay ahead of the march of progress, and remain relevant,” Ford said.

“When you really look at this focus on cognitive capability, [at] the fact that the machines are beginning to move into that space, which so far has protected people…that, as we look forward – again, I’m not talking about next year, or three years from now even, but I’m thinking in terms of decades, ten years from now, twenty years from now – what’s it going to look like as these technologies continue to accelerate? It does seem to me that there’s very likely to be a disruption.”

Continued economic growth will require the deep insights that come from AI and automation, but will also require the creativity and empathy that come from human beings connected in a global society.

Stanford University academic Jerry Kaplan said that while it’s true that today’s machines can credibly perform many tasks that were once reserved for humans, that doesn’t mean the machines are growing more intelligent and ambitious.

“It just means they’re doing what we built them to do,” he said. “We’ve been replacing skilled and knowledgeable workers for centuries, but the machines don’t aspire to better jobs and higher employment.”

Of course, humans do aspire to elevate themselves and knowing this workforce shift is on the horizon is encouraging leaders to chart a path in the right direction for the next generation.

AI vs. Automation

Before we can prepare the future workforce for this dramatic shift, it’s important to understand the difference between artificial intelligence and automation. According to CompTIA’s research brief, Understanding Emerging Technology: Artificial Intelligence, AI is the practice of designing computer systems to make intelligent decisions based on context rather than direct input.

It’s important to understand that AI systems always behave according to rules that have been programmed. Consider a computer playing chess; this may not strike many people today as AI, but it certainly fits the definition of a system that has been given rules and calculates probabilities and decisions on the fly based on the moves of the opponent.

Companies like CrushBank – profiled here – are harnessing cognitive computing via the IBM Watson platform to assist helpdesk engineers in finding information quickly and efficiently.

“With every interaction Watson is getting smarter and smarter,” said Evan Leonard, president of CrushBank. “It’s not like typing a search into Google.”

In many cases, AI will not be a means unto itself, but rather a critical ingredient undergirding operations inside digital organizations. CompTIA research reveals that among the 50 percent of companies that are aware of AI in place at their organization, there is recognition that the capabilities are built into existing tools and the challenge lies in utilization.

On the flipside, automation has a single purpose: to let machines perform repetitive, monotonous tasks. The machine will do exactly what you have programmed it to do – nothing more and nothing less. The manufacturing industry is the industry that has to-date utilized automation the most, but paperless invoicing, job applications, cloud documents, and online marketing and sales also fall into this category.

Many of the jobs expected to disappear due to automation in the next decade are industrial jobs such as metalworkers, coal miners and machine operators – particularly those without specialized skills. But, the service industry is also at risk. Futurists cite telemarketing, tax preparation, paralegals and fast food workers as jobs that are likely to be replaced by automation in the near future.

Preparing the Next Generation

The fact is, many students are currently studying disciplines that can be replaced. And, while technology is replacing many jobs, it is not necessarily creating new ones. Only five percent of the jobs created in the last 10 years came from the technology sector, and nine out of 10 workers are in jobs today that existed 100 years ago. Today, IT services and custom software development rank the highest in terms of adding new jobs and employing more people. But, tomorrow we may laugh at how much coding we used to do. Instead, software developers will only be needed for high-level jobs. Tasks like designing email templates and simpler software development tasks will be automated and outdated.

The idea that humans will be reserved for the higher-thinking jobs is interesting. It sheds some light on a topic that is often relegated to the doom-and-gloom category. It means that automation and AI are not synonymous with job loss and not all jobs will disappear. The reality is that many of them will be redefined. Of course, if you don’t have the skills to perform in your newly redefined job this is not much of a consolation. So, what can we do?

When it comes to the current workforce, the experts believe we will have to diversify our talents. That means not working one job for one company, but having the flexibility to work multiple jobs at once. And, when it comes to our youth, the experts say the way to keep up is to get students into machine learning, data science, math and cultivate higher thinking. If we can align courses that schools are offering to what the industry – and ultimately the world – is looking for, we’ll be on the right track to educating the 21st century workforce. But companies must also do their part. Retraining and equipping Americans from all backgrounds with the skills necessary to pursue a technology career of the future is key.

We’ve all seen technology change our lives. While it’s easy to get immersed in the calamitous predictions of the future, remember, humans are the only creatures that can be human. Jobs that require true creativity, engaging people in relationships and dealing with unpredictable emergency situations won’t be as affected by the robots – at least for now.

To learn more about automation, check out CompTIA’s research report, Understanding Emerging Technology: Automation.

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