Published February 20, 20203 min read
The machines are coming. Anyone who's watched a Boston Dynamics robot open a door or had a conversation with Alexa knows artificial intelligence and robotics are becoming more capable relative to humans.
Since the industrial age, machines have steadily augmented or supplanted humans when it comes to certain tasks. Not that it isn't helpful — it's great that we don't have to wash our clothes or file our taxes by hand anymore.
But as technology improves, will machines replace human labor altogether? We talked to experts about the prospects of machines taking our jobs and how we might prepare ourselves and our children for the changes to come.
On the one hand, it seems like computers can do anything these days. On the other hand, technology takes a long time to change the labor force, said Anek Belbase, a research fellow at the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College who has written about how automation will impact work.
For example, it's easy to predict truck drivers will become obsolete as driverless trucks take over freight, but companies may need to hire more workers to monitor the AI-driven trucks, Belbase said.
There's no evidence that mass joblessness is on the horizon, said Mark Muro, a senior fellow for the Metropolitan Policy Program at the Brookings Institute, a think tank.
However, certain skills will become less valuable as machines become more capable, Belbase added.
"The total areas in which humans have an advantage over machines has been reduced over time and our response has been to teach ourselves new skills," Belbase said.
In the past, machines couldn't match our ability to recognize objects or manipulate them dexterously. But over time, machines have caught up.
"Just being human is not enough anymore," Belbase said. "You have to actually develop a way of complementing what machines do. So education becomes a lot more important to be useful in the work force."
People who know how to code will have an advantage, as will people who know how to work with the huge streams of of data generated by technology.
Read our interview with Quincy Larson, founder of a non-profit that teaches people to code for free.
Humans will retain their advantage in social and emotional skills. Machines are a long way off from developing empathy, so occupations that require empathy, like social work, psychotherapy and many health care professions, will be relatively safe from automation.
Even if machines take over making stuff, humans will still decide what they make, Belbase said. Judgement and creativity will be major advantages, he added.
"Develop skills in interpersonal management, critical skills, social interaction," said Muro, who has written papers on the impact of automation. "Things that are more nuanced and interpersonal and more social tend to have lower exposure rates ."
For parents, it's important to prepare children for a lifetime of learning.
"This idea that you're going to have one career might not be possible," said Belbase.
However, policymakers will have to make education more accessible for that to happen. After all, tuition keeps going up and, as does student loan debt.
"Everybody is going to be much more involved in constant learning and we need to make that more available," Muro said. "It's something our country doesn't do very well now."
College is pricey, but there are many places that offer a tuition-free education. Check out our roundup.
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