As Robots Threaten More Jobs, Human Skills Will Save Us

The original article was posted on on March 10, 2018.

As more machines take over more jobs, the future is being clouded by fears—what will humans do? Rather than accept human obsolescence as a foregone conclusion, we need to ask new questions: “So what and now what?”

Humans have a secret weapon as they face off against computers in the workforce of the future: empathy. Even as artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning make greater in-roads not only in manual labor but also in cognitive tasks, humans will still have occupational oases in the desert of displaced workers. Jobs that require a one-on-one connection – such as in healthcare, education, and hospitality and tourism – will remain firmly in people’s hands.



Several experts have raised alarms about the threat that AI poses. Oxford University predicts that 47% of total U.S. employment is at risk due to computerization. McKinsey Global Institute research suggests that as much as 45% of job activities can be automated, and 30% of workers face the prospect that at least 60% of their work content can be done by machines.

We have seen this movie before. Several times in history, machines have changed how and where humans work. In the past, technological progress led to mechanization of manual tasks that required physical labor. With the advent of AI in the workplace, low-level manual jobs such as in transportation and logistics have been automated.

Now, AI and machine learning are also automating jobs involving judgment and decision-making. This opens the door for machines to compete with and actually outperform humans in cognitive tasks – for example, determining whether an insurance claim is fraudulent. Routine cognitive tasks in telemarketing, insurance underwriting, cashiers, and basic tax preparation becoming robotic is a foregone conclusion. AI can even help physicians in making accurate diagnoses. To master these higher order judgments, all smart machines need are algorithms that feed on data to become smarter than humans.

And it won’t stop there.

Machines learning will allow computers to encroach on creativity and creative intelligence. Painting, drawing, and composing music are a little more difficult to automate, but evidence shows what’s possible: IBM’s Watson has made a movie trailer (ironically, for a horror movie about AI). I would not expect any widespread creative work by machines for at least another decade or two, but with machines already using algorithms to write stock analysis reports, other compositions can’t be far behind.

As dire as these developments may sound, I do not foresee a future in which humans are replaced by robots. Having studied AI, including the work by colleagues in human-machine partnerships, I believe the future will not be computer vs. human, but computer plus human. Rather, than being replaced, humans will be redeployed into higher-order jobs requiring more cognitive skills. For example, even if a call center becomes automated, humans will need to manage it. In addition, sensors must be manufactured and repaired; robots maintained, and algorithms developed.

There will be ample opportunities for humans in healthcare, because health care workers need social intelligence to connect with patients. Jobs across the healthcare field – from skilled nursing and nurse’s aides, to occupational health, physical therapy, and mental health — require empathy and emotional intelligence that machines cannot replicate. Given the aging of the population, there will be ample opportunities for professional and semi-skilled caregivers and counselors.

A smaller, but higher-value opportunity will be for experts in machine learning and algorithms, as well as analytics and economics. These professionals will be pushing the frontier for the AI-powered economy, which has the potential for productivity and efficiency gains that could double economic growth rates in 2035. Those gains will be enjoyed by humans who will have more money to spend, not only on goods but also on experiences and travel.

These lifestyle changes will fuel growth in hospitality and tourism, as more infrastructure in these industries is built out. There will be greater demand for hotel workers, flight attendants, transportation, and guides. To attract more people, it is important for these professions to be seen as solid career choices, with greater appreciation for their skill sets around customer service and satisfaction.

Another area that holds a lot of promise for jobs is education. While online learning will displace some types of classroom learning, we will still need more teachers, coaches, tutors, and mentors for schools and colleges, as well as in vocational training to fill the skills gap in the AI economy.

The robots are here and the threat to jobs is real. However, humans will still thrive in the workforce thanks to our social intelligence and empathy, as well as higher-order skills and cognition. There will be oases of job opportunities among the desert of job automation, but we need to prepare ourselves. To capitalize on jobs requiring high-level cognition and social intelligence, humans must make a diligent effort to remain relevant in the workplace of the future. This means lifelong learning to prepare ourselves with new skills and greater adaptability to be redeployed.