Only three main occupations were available to intrepid job seekers 10,000 years ago: hunting, gathering and procreation.
Since then, the job market has advanced dramatically, developing into something not only more diverse, but also more abstract.
This progress was the result of human evolution, but also human innovation — as the human race evolved, the scope of its needs changed (and so did the methods by which these needs were satisfied).
Throughout history, we’ve always found ways to make our basic survival require less of our human focus, and we’ve witnessed subsequent booms in new professions — specifically, vocations that didn’t relate directly to merely subsisting, but thriving. In reality, the invention of flight, the moon landing and the digital revolution we saw at the end of the 20th century would not have happened if so much of our workforce hadn’t been free to explore the frontiers of human understanding.
We now stand on the precipice of a new revolution; we will see the complete automation of professions once thought to be inextricably human-operated when intelligent machines “take our jobs.”
Truth be told, they’ve already begun.
The “automation revolution” is here
To better understand how automation will shape the future, look no further than the present. Intelligent machines are already being employed in ways we never thought possible a few years ago.
Thanks to advancements like deep learning, automation is proving itself more adept than humans at diagnostics and analysis. Companies like X.ai are already beginning to affect administrative work in the same way machines took over the assembly line; even the world of journalism is being revolutionized by algorithms that can write news stories.
Automated functions are quickly becoming as qualified as humans when it comes to logic-based tasks, and as machines become smarter and more capable, they will continue to assume these types of roles in virtually every field, from accounting to transportation to information technology to security.
The “automation revolution” could happen in as little as 15 years.
While machines may be able to match us in logic, when it comes to creativity, they are woefully inadequate.
There are really only two human enterprises: creation and implementation. We design things, come up with interesting strategies and ideas and then we execute them. Whether that means building a physical product, writing code or organizing a global supply chain, all are channels for expressing our creative ideas and manifesting those ideas in the physical world.
We build technology to help us on the implementation side (for the most part). We haven’t yet managed to automate our creativity and critical thinking.
Where machines dare not tread
The “automation revolution” will change what it means to be employable. To have jobs, people will have to do creative work or work in a service industry that requires the human touch.
The definition of educational success will have to change to account for this new reality. In the future, tests will be less about rote memorization and more about critical creative thinking that machines can’t yet replicate.
So where will the next generation fit into this automated future?
Several fields will still require the creativity and empathy of humanity — at least for the foreseeable future:
Entertainment: Machines can bake the bread, but they can’t tackle the circuses. Not only will film, television and video games still be dominated by human ingenuity, new areas will open up. Virtual reality, for example, continues to improve and has the potential to become the most addictive tech in history, offering fully immersive fantasy worlds people may never want to leave.
The service industries: Although machines might perform the actual services, humans will still be required for the social part of the equation. People will become automation ambassadors, so to speak. Their roles will primarily be to explain the benefits and safety of using automation at home and in the workplace.
Machine training: Along similar lines as service industry ambassadors, this job will require a combination of subject-matter experts and engineers who train machines to do certain tasks. For instance, someone has to teach a machine the best way to paint a wall or repair an engine, then give it feedback. Machine trainers will act both as “zookeepers” and as mechanics to service the machines and care for the programs that operate them.
Entrepreneurship: Automation will change everything about how we conduct business today, and entrepreneurship will quickly take center stage. Building a product and getting it manufactured at scale, marketed and sold will be the job of one entrepreneur (rather than an entire company).
Right now, one person can design and 3D-print a better widget, but can’t sell it at scale. Automated assistants could help source components, create manufacturing processes, book transportation, launch marketing campaigns and even secure financing.
Moreover, advantages that major corporations used to enjoy (like giant advertising budgets) will no longer be as important. An artificial intelligence assistant doesn’t care if you bought an ad; it will find the best product to fulfill your needs, even if it’s produced by a 12-year-old in her garage.
The shape of the automated economy
This doesn’t mean everyone who is made redundant by automation will be able to pivot and find a new job in a different capacity — many jobs will indeed be gone for good, and many household incomes will fall drastically as a result.
Machines will be able to do almost everything far more cheaply than humans. Average incomes will drop, but so will the average cost of production, driving down the price of goods and services. This means that, even though unemployment will increase, the standards of living could actually rise, not fall.
The transition to this new economy will happen quickly. Unlike the Industrial Revolution, which spanned centuries, the “automation revolution” could happen in as little as 15 years. The only real obstacle will be people’s willingness to embrace change.
This new paradigm won’t arise in a vacuum — politically and culturally, people will have to accept intelligent machines into their lives. And if we’re able to do that, we can move forward into a future that allows us to explore what makes us truly human: our creativity.