Afraid of Robots Taking Jobs? Here's What You Should Know
People from all walks of life are worried about robots taking jobs. Even technology billionaires like Elon Musk and Bill Gates are concerned about the possible social and economic ramifications of too many jobs being replaced by robots, automation, and artificial intelligence (AI). Stephen Hawking, the highly respected, world-famous scientist, has even said that these technologies may represent some of the biggest dangers in the history of human development. So if you're afraid of machines taking jobs and leaving behind few employment opportunities for you or your family, you're not crazy.
But is it time to panic? No. The future is unknown. Nobody on Earth knows for sure what will happen. With countless different variables at play, we'd be foolish to assume we can predict the future with 100-percent accuracy. At the same time, we'd also be foolish to stick our heads in the sand and pretend that robots taking over jobs is only the stuff of fantasy or science fiction. After all, it's already happening.
Ask anyone who's worked in America's manufacturing sector for any length of time. They've probably either known people who've had jobs lost to automation or have become unemployed themselves because of it. But factory workers aren't the only ones seeing machines take over. From retail employees to pharmacists, many kinds of workers are starting to witness more and more automation in their industries. We're still just at the beginning of what may become a widespread robot revolution.
That leaves most of us in a strange situation. Uncertainty probably clouds many of our ambitions, especially those related to our careers. How can we move forward when we can barely see five years in front of us? We need to examine this issue more closely:
- Should we really be worried about robots replacing jobs?
- What will happen when robots take our jobs (if they do)?
- What jobs will be replaced by robots first?
- 49 jobs that might be safe from robots for a long time
- How to prepare for the rise of robots and artificial intelligence
Should We Really Be Worried About Robots Taking Over Human Jobs?
Here's the only honest answer: Maybe. We shouldn't trust anybody who claims to know exactly what the future holds. The best we can do is speculate based on existing facts, trends, and ideas. Almost anything is possible if we can imagine it. But very little of what we can imagine is likely to come true any time soon. It's more likely that stuff will happen that we've never imagined before. That's why the better question might be: Is the idea that robots will take our jobs something we should take seriously?
Here's the best answer to that question: Yes. Definitely. Why? Look at a few relevant facts and scholarly estimates:
- Based on real-world data from 1990 to 2007, employment was reduced by between three and six workers for each industrial robot introduced to local work regions.1
- From 2010 to 2015 alone, global sales of industrial robots grew by an average of 16 percent per year.2
- By the early 2030s, almost 40 percent of jobs in the U.S. could be at high risk of being automated.3
- By the mid-2030s, between 45 and 57 percent of workers worldwide may have experienced (or be at risk of experiencing) their jobs being replaced by technology related to automation.1
We have no real way of knowing whether the above projections will become reality. They might not. However, there's a chance that they represent the conservative end of the spectrum when it comes to robots taking jobs. (Statistics and estimates often don't tell the whole story.) A very real possibility exists that, because of automation, job loss could be something most workers will have to contend with in the decades ahead.
Artificial intelligence is a major wild card in all of this. Ray Kurzweil, the world's most famous futurist, has predicted that machines will have human-level intelligence by 2029. He's also predicted that the Singularity (i.e., the point at which machines surpass human intelligence) will occur by 2045. At that point, all bets are off, especially if the field of robotics advances to a similar level. The scary thing is that Kurzweil has an impressive track record of making accurate or close-to-accurate predictions about technological advancements and how they'll be used. Will he be right again?
If Kurzweil is correct, then the prospect of artificial intelligence taking jobs is what we should be most concerned about. Expert opinions vary widely on this subject, but here are some points to consider:
- A large and growing number of technology companies are sinking billions upon billions of dollars into the research and development of artificial intelligence. The race is on to see who can develop the most human-like AI.
- Deep-learning algorithms are driving a lot of the growth in AI. Machines are teaching themselves how to do things by making observations, processing vast quantities of data, and constantly testing things out through trial and error. The results are already astounding, even as we start taking them for granted. For example, machine learning is being used for applications like game playing, language translation, and voice and image recognition. But it's also showing real promise in things like driving cars, making financial decisions, writing reports, and diagnosing diseases. Some machines have even learned how to create original paintings that convincingly mimic the styles and techniques of master artists.
- In contrast to AI driven by logical reasoning, the major challenge (and potential danger) of AI driven by deep learning is that humans don't actually understand the extremely layered and complex algorithms being generated. Even the software engineers responsible for designing deep-learning machines struggle to figure out the reasons why their machines take the actions or make the decisions they do. That "black box" nature poses problems. We need to be able to trust the AI we use and receive reasonable explanations for why it does what it does. Ultimately, it's a dilemma that may prove impossible to fully solve.
- Some AI-driven robots are already capable of repairing or cloning themselves. Some robots can even teach each other new tricks. So it isn't hard to imagine a future in which smarter and physically superior machines decide that humans don't serve a purpose.
- When new technologies leave the hands of researchers and developers, they enter the real world where they are exposed to all kinds of unpredictable forces. Just because something has been designed for a benevolent purpose doesn't mean it will actually be used that way once it's out of the lab.
Theoretically, machines could take over virtually all human jobs if they ever do become more intelligent than us. In the meantime, certain factors may slow the growth of robotics, automation, and AI in our workplaces. For example, many organizations will resist automation if the costs stay too high. That's one reason why it often takes a long time for new technologies to get widely adopted. Other major reasons include legal and regulatory restrictions. But nothing is a given. If new breakthroughs happen that make the benefits of deploying robots and artificial intelligence too good for companies and governments to ignore, then this type of technology could become widespread a lot sooner than most of us expect.
What Will Happen When Robots Take Our Jobs (If They Do)?
The possible outcomes range from a terrible dystopia to a delightful utopia and everything in between. Most likely, the future will fall somewhere in the middle. But it's easy to argue that each extreme is a realistic possibility. Everything may depend on who society entrusts to make the inevitable hard decisions. Laws will have to be written or rewritten to ensure that all of society truly benefits from the technology, not just the wealthy and elite one percent of earners.
That's why it's critical for all of us to understand this issue. It's in our best interests to know about the potential rewards of machines taking over jobs as well as the potential dangers. Our fate is still largely in our own hands. What do we want? Consider these possible futures:
- A dystopia for the 99 percent—At the end of the day, it might not be the robots that we have to worry so much about; it might be the wealthy people who own and control them. We already live in a world in which a disproportionate amount of the prosperity reaped from technology-driven gains in productivity go to the richest people instead of being equitably shared by everyone. It's a winner-take-most paradigm. So, what if robots eventually become so smart and capable that the rich no longer need to employ other humans for anything? Unless we stop the wealthiest people in society from corrupting and controlling our governments without providing broad access to the best technologies, they may just decide to hunker down in protected enclaves, being served by artificially intelligent robots, leaving the rest of us to fend for ourselves in the wake of a collapsed economy, ruined governments, and trashed environment.
- Massive unemployment with a social safety net—Many experts make the argument that the market economy has always created new kinds of jobs when technologies have made once-common jobs obsolete. But robots and artificial intelligence will have much broader applications than previous technologies. This time, everything might be different. With nearly all jobs replaced by robots and few new opportunities to take their place, society would be confronted with a real dilemma. After a so-called "Great Displacement" of human workers, how would people afford to live? In this scenario, governments (controlled by the 99 percent) might decide to guarantee that everyone receives enough money to survive on. Instead of the very wealthy keeping most of the economic gains for themselves, the rewards would be more fairly distributed to everyone. Various proposals are already being debated by economists and visionaries. They include ideas like a universal basic income or a negative income tax. Such ideas have already been proven to work in the past, albeit on a much smaller scale. It's a concept that could result in more creativity and entrepreneurship since people would feel free to take risks knowing they were guaranteed a livable income.
- New opportunities generated by human-robot collaboration—Who says machines have to be our enemies? Maybe they'll be our partners. It's far from a given that most jobs will be replaced by robots and AI. Instead, we might discover that humans and machines (even hyper-intelligent ones) need each other. Maybe the whole really is greater than the sum of its parts. As old jobs become obsolete, new ones may arise that require us to collaborate with our robot friends. Ultimately, society might gain a lot more from this collaboration than from a human-only or machine-only paradigm. In this scenario, workers might enjoy better-paying opportunities and the chance to do work that feels more meaningful and aligned with their special human talents. That said, we might have to ride a wave of high unemployment until workers can be trained for the new opportunities. The transition may not be easy.
- A whole new system that benefits everyone—This scenario would require a real leap by all of us. We would leave behind our current paradigm of competition and scarcity in favor of one ruled by cooperation and abundance. Theoretically, it should be possible to create a world in which everyone thrives—without worrying about money. In fact, advanced robotics and AI could allow us to take money completely out of the equation. We wouldn't care about robots replacing human jobs since we would have no need to work for our living. The technology could help us move toward a resource-based economy instead. It would be a future in which machines help us intelligently manage the world's resources and distribute them fairly. Nobody would have to go hungry. We could all be free to pursue comfortable lives with more fun, leisure, and interesting hobbies. This kind of future has been envisioned and promoted by respected futurists such as Jacque Fresco, creator of the Venus Project.
Given the wide range of possibilities, it should be more obvious than ever that your vote matters. Whose vision of the future will you be supporting when you mark your ballots?
What Jobs Will Be Replaced by Robots First?
It's been estimated that fewer than one in ten jobs can be fully automated (as of 2017).4 So we're still a long way from any of the potential scenarios described above. Nevertheless, the robots are already here, and they're only getting more capable. It's causing many of us to wonder: Will robots take over our jobs?
Again, it's hard to make accurate predictions. What might seem like surefire jobs that will be replaced by robots may ultimately remain human-only jobs or become robot-assisted jobs instead. Social acceptance will probably play a big role. It may become socially unacceptable to have robots in some kinds of jobs, even if they're capable of performing them. That said, certain employment sectors may offer better potential for automation than others over the next decade or two. For example, the following sectors are believed to offer the greatest potential for the automation of job tasks:5
- Accommodation and food services
Of course, not all jobs within the sectors above have equal risk of being automated. Education and skill level makes a big difference, at least during the early stages of this potential robot revolution. In fact, in 2016, it was estimated that about 44 percent of workers in America without a high school diploma had jobs consisting of tasks that could be easily automated. In contrast, only six to eight percent of workers with an associate degree or trade school certificate had jobs consisting of very automatable tasks. And only one percent of workers with at least a bachelor's degree had such jobs.6
The risk of automation is also correlated with how much a job pays. For example, more than 80 percent of jobs that pay under $20 per hour may be vulnerable to automation in the relatively near future. In comparison, only about 30 percent of jobs paying $20 to $40 per hour are considered vulnerable. And only four percent of jobs paying more than $40 per hour are estimated to be vulnerable.6
Most of those estimates are based on the capabilities of current automation technologies. But a lot can change in a short amount of time. So it may not just be low-paying jobs that are at risk. Many good middle-class jobs could also be at risk relatively soon if the pace of robotics and AI development picks up. In any case, here are just a few examples of occupations that machines might increasingly take over in the near future:
- Fast-food cooks
- Hotel bellhops
- Reception clerks
- Machine operators
- Forklift operators
- Material handlers
- Truck drivers
- Taxi drivers
- Delivery drivers
- Postal workers
- Aircraft pilots
- Cargo ship captains
- Farm workers
- Retail shelf stockers
- Accounting clerks
- Commodities salespeople
- Legal assistants
49 Jobs That Might Be Safe From Robots for a Long Time
When it comes to jobs that can't be replaced by technology, we have to consider our distinctive human traits. What makes us different from machines? Obviously, as robotics and artificial intelligence advance, the line between man and machine will begin to blur. So we should probably focus on the human qualities that machines will have the most difficulty replicating.
Currently, machines are best at recognizing patterns, doing calculations, and performing predictable tasks—all without ever getting bored. But thanks to deep learning, some machines are also now able to learn and adapt to unpredictable situations. However, most robots and artificially intelligent machines are still pretty weak in a number of areas where a lot of us excel. For the foreseeable future, humans should remain better than machines when it comes to jobs requiring traits like:
- Manual dexterity
- Common sense
It's also likely that jobs related to developing or supervising robots and intelligent machines will remain at low risk of being automated for a long time to come. In quite a few cases, the jobs that remain will involve working with robotic and/or artificially intelligent assistants. So the occupations won't disappear, but they will be changed. With all of those things in mind, here's a list of example occupations (along with their median yearly wages) that could potentially be safe until at least the early 2030s:
- Software developer—$100,080 (applications); $106,860 (systems)7
- Information security analyst—$92,6007
- Personal financial planner—$90,5307
- Construction manager—$89,3007
- Robotics engineer—$80,8818
- Computer programmer—$79,8407
- Technical or scientific products sales representative—$78,9807
- Genetic counselor—$74,1207
- Dental hygienist—$72,9107
- Project manager—$71,6118
- Music producer—$70,9507
- Urban or regional planner—$70,0207
- Registered nurse—$68,4507
- Web developer—$66,1307
- Digital media artist—$65,3007
- Fashion designer—$65,1707
- Ethics officer—$64,3548
- Film or video editor—$62,7607
- Makeup artist—$60,9707
- Aircraft mechanic—$60,1707
- Arbitrator or mediator—$59,7707
- Quality control supervisor—$59,6678
- Video game designer—$59,2508
- Physical therapist assistant—$56,6107
- Elementary school teacher—$55,8007
- Restaurant manager—$50,8207
- Family therapist—$49,1707
- Data curator—$48,5138
- Private detective—$48,1907
- Graphic designer—$47,6407
- Child or family social worker—$43,2507
- Addictions counselor—$41,0707
- Massage therapist—$39,8607
- Auto mechanic—$38,4707
- Fitness trainer—$38,1607
- Early childhood educator—$36,6408
- Patient care technician—$29,6598
- Hair stylist—$24,2607
How to Prepare for the Rise of Robots and Artificial Intelligence
The jobs replaced by technology probably won't ever come back, at least not in any major way. Given the huge momentum behind AI and robotics development, we should assume that many, if not most, jobs will be affected, even if they aren't eliminated. Although we can't know for sure what the future holds, it's smart to prepare as if the technology will impact your job.
In addition to the occupations listed in the previous section, it's worth exploring some of the best careers for the future. They'll help you start imagining new directions you can go in. There's no harm in taking an active interest in some of the amazing possibilities that could become reality. By staying aware of leading-edge trends, you stand a better chance of not being caught off guard by major changes. For example, start taking an interest in other exciting technologies of the future, such as:
- 3D printing
- Blockchain technology
- The Internet of things
- Virtual reality
- Brain implants
- Augmented reality
- Quantum computing
Of course, when it comes specifically to robots and AI, it's a good idea to learn as much as you can about how the partnerships between humans and machines may develop. Pay special attention to the developments in your current industry or the one you want to enter. Start thinking about the tasks you do each day that could become automated. But also think about how using robots or artificial intelligence might make your job easier in the future or free you up to focus on the most important aspects of what you do.
As part of your preparation, you may want to take some classes in robotics or computer science. The better you understand the technology, the easier it will be for you to identify the areas where you can leverage your human talents in a way that machines can't easily match. Also, get involved with clubs, groups, or associations that are actively engaged in this brave new frontier of advanced robotics and AI.
Free Your Ambitions
Given the rapid pace of change, it's normal to worry about robots taking jobs. But almost anything can happen. So focus on creating the life you truly want. Follow your interests and keep an open mind. Figure out how you can apply your best human qualities to a field you enjoy. Many career colleges and vocational schools offer programs that are directly aimed at the opportunities of both the present and the future. Discover one in your area right now by putting your zip code into the following search tool!
1 National Bureau of Economic Research, Robots and Jobs: Evidence from US Labor Markets, website last visited on November 25, 2019.
2 International Federation of Robotics, Executive Summary World Robotics 2016 Industrial Robots, website last visited on June 13, 2017.
3 PwC, Consumer Spending Prospects and the Impact of Automation on Jobs: UK Economic Outlook, website last visited on November 9, 2017.
4 International Federation of Robotics, The Impact of Robots on Productivity, Employment and Jobs, website last visited on June 13, 2017.
5 McKinsey Global Institute, A Future That Works: Automation, Employment, and Productivity, website last visited on May 7, 2018.
6 Executive Office of the President, Artificial Intelligence, Automation, and the Economy, website last visited on June 13, 2017.
7 Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Employment Projections, website last visited on June 20, 2017.
8 PayScale, website last visited on June 20, 2017.