In addition, jobs that were once challenging and required highly skilled expertise could become mundane, thanks to automation. There are hints of this happening today. As X-rays and other medical records are digitised and computer algorithms become better at interpreting them, radiologists, for example, find themselves collaborating with machines, acting more as fact checkers than as medical sleuths. “If radiologists start to respond only to what the computer suggests, then they don’t develop their own very sophisticated skills,” says Nicholas Carr, author of The Glass Cage: Automation and Us. “Jobs that used to be very complex, idiosyncratic and interesting start to look more like computer operator jobs, just putting in data and interpreting screen readouts.”
Old dogs, new tricks
Automation, however, does not necessarily spell doom and boredom for entire sectors of the workforce. So long as jobs are available that require some degree of human involvement, there will be room for people to continue to hold them. When Google’s search engine began gaining momentum a decade or so ago, for example, fears abounded that librarians would be rendered obsolete. Instead, openings for librarians actually increased, although new skills were needed to excel at the job. “If it’s possible for a machine to completely replace a human, then yes, I’m superfluous,” Autor says. “But if I’m the person who can now manage that machine, then I become more valuable.”
Added to that is the fact that – unless the singularity unexpectedly occurs – machines and software will likely never replace certain jobs. So far, humans are vastly superior at any work that relies on creativity, entrepreneurialism, interpersonal skills and emotional intelligence. Jobs that fall into these categories – including clergymen, nurses, motivational speakers, caretakers, trainers, entertainers and more – will probably fare well in a more automated world.
Similarly, just because something can be automated, Frey says, doesn’t mean it will be. Even if restaurants begin using tablets installed on tables to take orders, and robots to deliver the food and refill beverages, society might not necessarily take to that change. It could turn out that people simply want to be served food – or have their groceries run up, or their taxis driven – by other people, not by machines. This phenomenon is reflected in the recent resurgence of artisans in urban centres around the world, from Brooklyn to London to Berlin to Portland. It turns out that there is a booming market for handcrafted furniture made from salvaged factory beams, hand built headphones, gourmet small-batch foods ranging from marshmallows to mayonnaise – and much more. While these products are valued precisely because automation plays no part in their production, many artisanal companies rely heavily on technology, like the Etsy peer-to-peer e-commerce website, to find a market for their goods.