Robots vs. humans: Who will win the fight for the jobs of the future

Illustration for post on robots, AI and the future of work
Illustration by Fanny Luor

Will robots be competitors or co-workers? Do machines truly pose an existential threat to human usefulness? Thanks to movies like Blade Runner, Terminator, and The Matrix, we’ve been dreading it for decades. Even as the push for productivity makes it feel more like we’re trying to take the robots’ jobs, a lot of us still worry about being replaced by automatons. And it’s not just factory workers. At the recent Davos conference, AI and its impact on the future of work was top of mind for many of the world’s economic leaders. So how can humans prepare and position ourselves for changing roles in the near future? Here are five jobs that are likely to stay in demand—and become easier—as more workers begin collaborating with robots.

1. Healthcare workers

Though automation definitely helps us do rote tasks faster, when it comes to caring for our loved ones, the human elements of warmth and empathy are likely to continue to be valued over efficiency alone. As author Blake Morgan put it: “If you had an MRI and were awaiting a diagnosis, would you want that diagnosis to come from a robot?”

That may be why the jobs least in jeopardy of being replaced by automation include occupational therapists, mental health social workers, and nurses. In fact, a 2013 Oxford study estimated that there’s less than a 1% chance that nursing jobs will be automated. Though automation-assisted surgery is already a reality, robots aren’t on the verge of making the surgeon’s job obsolete. As Wired noted, it’s more likely that doctors and robots will team up like superheroes. That’s good news for patients—because studies suggest robots could help prevent mistakes during surgeries.

2. Artists, designers, and musicians

It’s a fact. Robots can make art. So can monkeys—but they haven’t taken over the galleries yet. In the world of design, some are making bold predictions about “fearlessly creative” computers designing hyper-personalized products. But others are skeptical about their job-robbing potential. In fact, according to one computer scientist in Australia, the most “robot-immune careers” are ones where workers need to be creative.

Still, enterprising researchers are out to prove AI can write tunes and create paintings. So who needs unpredictable pop stars and moody artists? Humans do. For the same reason I wouldn’t want to get cornered in a conversation with a robot at a party, I’d take any soulfully imperfect track over an auto-tuned groove made by a machine imitating emotions it can’t feel. But if the evolution from drum machines to samples to digital recording is any indication, technology will continue to make a musician’s job a lot easier.

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3. Entrepreneurs

Robots are great at doing what programmers tell them to do. But how good are they at seeing jobs that aren’t being done, then inventing new technologies to fill the need? According to Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee, co-authors of The Second Machine Age, “There is no better time to be an entrepreneur with an insight than today, because you can use technology to leverage your invention.” One advantage we have is our capacity to see potential connections between seemingly unrelated industries, and invent new tools to bridge the gaps.

It also remains to be seen whether robots can lead teams (of presumably human workers) and build businesses that continue to innovate and adapt. Being an entrepreneur requires a willingness to take risks and make irrational choices. So unpredictability might be one of the biggest advantages human entrepreneurs have over their robotic counterparts.

4. Salespeople

Predictive-marketing software is so reliable at telling when prospects will make a purchase, it now outperforms human salespeople about 90% of the time. But there’s a big difference between being able to tell when an apple is ripe and being able to make an apple pie. That’s why bots won’t be bumping out salespeople for a while. To close the deal, you need to know more than just when someone is most likely to buy.

That’s because people don’t always make rational purchasing decisions. People understand that better than robots do. We’re also better equipped to build trust and develop relationships with our prospects. So as amazing as predictive-marketing software is, its real value is enabling salespeople to focus on closing the deal. That’s why experts expect the relationship to continue to be more complementary than competitive.

5. Teachers

A study by McKinsey showed that education is one of the sectors that’s least susceptible to automation. Much the same as with healthcare, human empathy is hard to replace when the job requires an intuitive understanding of complex emotional creatures like kindergartners. True, robots might get less rattled by tantrums. And okay, maybe they can deal with moody young ones with a steady mechanical patience no human can match.

But teaching takes more than Herculean levels of endurance. It takes the ability to navigate sometimes turbulent relationships between the students and handle concerns from their parents as well. Author Malcolm Frank anticipates a collaborative dynamic, where boring chores like reviewing homework are handled by AI so human teachers can concentrate on “higher impact, more creative work.”

Once you get past the hype of worst-case scenarios, it’s easier to see how AI is less likely to replace us and more likely to enhance the way we work. As automation takes busy work off our hands, we’ll have more time to focus on what we want to do—and what we do best.

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