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Lead image: Many people think this is the office of 2040. No more standing around the water cooler, huh?

Two years ago, while enrolled in LBST 308 Work and Technological Change, I was introduced to the disruptive effects that modern technologies are expected to have on jobs in the upcoming decades. Technologies continuously change labour markets; they create, eliminate, and transform jobs. Today, you are more likely to know a software developer than a travel agent since technologies have drastically reduced the number of people employed in the latter occupation. 

An extremely popular paper written by two Oxford researchers predicts that 47% of all jobs in the United States are at risk of computerisation in the next 20 years due to breakthroughs in robotics and artificial intelligence. At the heart of these breakthroughs are artificial neural networks. Modeled after the structure of the human brain, artificial neural networks enable machines to detect complex patterns in colossal amounts of information and perform tasks we can, often at higher levels of performance than us.

You may have heard of Google DeepMind’s AlphaGo defeating Lee Sedol, a professional Go master. Known for its complexity and extreme sophistication, Go is a game few people expected machines to master so quickly. After losing four out of five rounds against AlphaGo, Lee said, “I never want to play this kind of match again. I endured the match because I accepted it.” Although this example does not directly relate to work, it demonstrates the ability of artificial intelligence to outperform us on increasingly intricate tasks.

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Above, from left to right: DeepMind CEO Demis Hassabis, Go champion Lee Sedol, and Alphabet president Sergey Brin.

DoNotPay is a platform created by university student Josh Browder that allows people to easily appeal parking violations. Users talk to the artificial intelligence just as they would talk to a person, and the program is able to collect the information needed and prepare a letter to dispute the fine. As of July 2016, DoNotPay had overturned upwards of 160,000 parking tickets in the United Kingdom alone, reducing the need for approximately 25,000 parking lawyers in the nation. In Browder’s words, “as [the] DoNotPay robot talks to more people, it improves both its conversation and legal skills. My hope is that by the end of the year, it will be good enough to replace these exploitative lawyers completely.”

Many business reporters at Associated Press prefer “to poke their eyes out with sharp objects” when it’s time to write quarterly earnings reports. The mundane process involves copy-and-pasting company revenues, profits, and share earnings into a template and immediately publishing the piece online. Associated Press turned to Automated Insight’s Wordsmith software to improve this situation and found success. Wordsmith, almost instantly, converts raw earnings data into reports indistinguishable from those written by journalists. The automation of this process allows 3,700 earnings reports to be published every quarter, compared to only 300 when written by journalists. As a result, business reporters are able to spend their time writing stories they have much more of an interest in. The example of Associated Press and its employees shows that new forms of automation do not always displace workers and can increase job satisfaction instead. 

Planning for the future

It’s extremely difficult to accurately predict the effect technological change will have on your ideal career. The extent to which technology is implemented in the workplace is subject to many factors, such as the differing business conditions of companies in a given industry and the broader political, legal, and social expectations of the time. All of these qualities influence whether machines will replace us, work with us, or not affect us at all. You can see the probability of your ideal career’s automation here.

It is my belief that the possibility of robots putting us out of work is good, as long as we can accommodate the unemployment by providing a universal basic income funded by the productivity of machines or ample opportunities to gain the in-demand skills required to work in an era of rapid technological change. However, we must still consider the possibility that technologies will only change our jobs, not take them. 

In order to make your career as resilient as possible, I would suggest developing skills in the three main areas identified by the Oxford researchers: perception and manipulation, creative intelligence, and social intelligence. Choosing a career that involves these skills (for example, negotiation, strategic planning, or painting) maximizes the stability of your career by reducing the chance you will need to reskill when new waves of rapid technological change occur. Jobs that don’t require such abilities are very likely to be automated in the future.

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Some people will consider futurists’ projections when planning their careers while others will not bother. It is wise to be alert and to prepare yourself in case their claims are correct. Personally, I prefer to have as much information as possible when planning what my life will become. If you choose to consider reports predicting that technologies will make human work obsolete, remember that over the long term, prior periods of rapid technological change led to an increase in net jobs. The upcoming period of change could very well be unprecedented, but as we are all aware, it is impossible to predict the future. 

Beyond the Blog

SFU Student
Erik Sagmoen is a fifth year student in Psychology and Labour Studies who is simultaneously captivated and repulsed by technological change. As a techno-progressive, he believes technology should be harnessed for social change. Erik plans to pursue a career in the field of work and society after graduation.

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