Oxford University recently released a study concluding that almost half of today’s jobs performed by humans will be taken over by robots and software automation within the next two decades. Bill Gates has warned us that “technology over time will reduce demand for jobs, particularly at the lower end of the skill set … 20 years from now, labor demand for lots of skill sets will be substantially lower. I don’t think people have that in their mental model.” It’s hard to imagine a world where half of today’s jobs have been transferred over to robots, but it’s coming. Here are some of the most likely candidates.
10. Service Clerks
The jobs that are already starting to disappear are the minimum-wage service clerks: cashiers, bank tellers, even librarians. Today, you can withdraw, deposit, and check your bank balance through an ATM, and speaking to a real live bank teller has become a rare event. Self-checkouts are available at retail stores across the country, greatly reducing the need for human cashiers. Retail employment hasn’t increased by much in recent years despite sales performing strongly. It’s estimated that over $1 trillion will be transacted through self-service machines in 2014. It’s not hard to imagine a giant retailer like Wal-Mart or Target developing a completely automated store within the next few years. The technology is there, and in the case of self-checkout lines it has already proved to save them a lot of money.
Next time you go to Applebee’s or Chili’s, check out the tablet computers they now have on each table. Although both restaurants still employ waiters, food and drinks can now be ordered through the computers themselves, without ever talking to your server. More and more restaurants are encouraging their customers to use tablets to order food and pay their bill. This saves the restaurant money on staff, and customers actually end up spending more when they’re ordering from a tablet.
One restaurant in Shandong, China has completely done away with human waiters in order to boost efficiency, and robots that cook and prepare gourmet food at a rapid rate have also been developed. (LINK 7) It won’t be much longer before large chain restaurants make the move to entirely robot-run establishments.
8. Telemarketers & Technical Support
Telemarketers and technical support workers already sound like robots, so it’s not difficult to see how easily their jobs can be replaced by them. In some cases, these jobs have already been taken over. One example is a telemarketer named Samantha West. An insurance company in Florida employs the human-sounding robotic operator in order to gather information from callers before passing them onto a live human to finalize the sale.
But how much longer until even the human closer is completely automated? Enter IBM’s Watson. After dominating the popular trivia show Jeopardy!, Watson’s next mission is to become a sales and customer support genius. Seriously. There’s a ton of money in sales and customer service, and IBM believes they can teach Watson to accurately respond to difficult off-script questions that sometimes confuse telemarketers and customer support technicians. IBM has actually created a machine that sells itself. They currently use Watson to sell Watsons to other companies.
7. Real Estate Agents
The least glamorous aspect of being a real estate agent is spending hours each week showing off homes to prospective buyers. You make a plate of cookies, brew a pot of coffee, maintain the cleanliness of the home, and give the same mundane tour over and over. This entire task is on its way to being completely automated. MIT is developing “highly expressive humanoids” that move and interact with humans in a natural way. They can learn from people, and one robot named Rea has been trained to answer questions about property.
There’s also no longer a need for the home owners to even clean their property — they can just buy a robot. A company called Robomow has come out with a machine that will vacuum your house, go outside and mow the lawn, and then hop in your pool and give that a clean too. We’ve come a long way from those first vacuuming Roombas.
Even supposedly creative career fields, such as journalism, will be replaced with machines. One expert predicts that over 90% of news articles will be written solely by computers within 15 years. It’s not hard to see why. News articles do little more than report the facts in an easy-to-read way. It shouldn’t be too much of a problem to train a computer to ingest data and spit out a finished news story.
And apparently, it’s not. Narrative Sciences is the leader in machine-generated content. Their company produces stories completely untouched by humans. And these aren’t just test articles spit out at some university somewhere. You’ve probably read some robot written articles already and been none the wiser. The Big Ten Network uses Narrative Sciences’ machine to produce sports stories, and even Forbes magazine employs robot journalists to write and publish company earnings reports.
Replacement of pharmacists with robots has already begun, as the UCSF Medical Center has built an entirely automated hospital pharmacy run by intelligent machines. The robots at UCSF process, prepare, and track medications. Everything is done without any human input, and the result is improved safety for patients. Experts believe that pharmacists will be the first highly skilled workers that will lose their careers to robots. The pharmacy bots of today label vials, count pills, bill insurance companies, and look up patient records. The best robot pharmacists used today are already faster and commit far less errors than their human counterparts.
Everyone has heard of Google’s self-driving car program. These Google cars have autonomously driven over half a million miles with no accidents at all while under the control of the machines. It’s only a matter of time before these self driving machines spread, and millions of people are out of jobs. Bus drivers, truck drivers, taxi drivers, airline pilots, even the pizza delivery guy will be put out of work.
In Australia, there’s already a large mining facility that has replaced all of its human drivers with 45 massive robot-controlled mining trucks. Trucks that drive themselves would save businesses a ton of money. These things can drive constantly, and there’s no need to pull over to sleep for eight hours or even stop for food. Replacing human drivers with robots will massively increase productivity. Unfortunately, this may be one of the largest groups of people left without jobs when autonomous vehicles are available on a massive scale.
This is where it gets scary. Robotic Drones have already been in use by the CIA for years, and over 2,000 people in Pakistan have been killed by drones in the last decade. We’ve all seen videos of those four-legged pack-mule bots carting army equipment around, but how much longer until robot warriors are employed on a massive scale? General Robert Cone believes that by the middle of the century, US Army soldiers will be fighting alongside robo-squadmates. The Army is already planning on reducing the size of its combat teams from 4,000 human soldiers to 3,000, with robots and drones filling the gap.
On the one hand it may seem a relief to have machines doing the dirty work of war for us, but on the other hand this could have terrifying consequences. The International Committee for Robot Arms Control was formed in 2009 to warn us of the disastrous consequences building robotic kill-machines could lead to. A future war scenario as outlined in the Terminator movies doesn’t seem that far fetched anymore.
Even teachers are at risk for losing their jobs in the next two decades. Computer scientists are developing super-sophisticated machines that interact with people in a natural way to teach them basic skills. This includes vocabulary and mathematics. Machines such as these are currently used to teach autistic children how to play and interact with other people. In Korea, human teachers have already been largely replaced by robots in some classrooms. Engkey, a popular English teaching robot, is in use in several schools in a new program launched by the South Korean government. The Engkey bots are still supported by a human teacher who appears on a video screen once problems arise. But, how much longer until even this human is replaced by a Watson-like super-intelligent machine?
Yes, even doctors are threatened by the rapid increase in machine intelligence. Even today when you go in for surgery, chances are you will be operated on with the help of a robot. Most large hospitals, and even many of the smaller ones, have huge octopus-armed machines that assist the doctors with performing surgeries. The robots are more precise and faster in many ways, and they even allow surgeons to work remotely. Imagine surgeons of the future lounging around in their underwear at home, eating cereal, watching Netflix, and at the same time remotely directing a robot surgery machine somewhere across the country. (LINK 25)
Some predict that four out of five doctors will eventually be replaced with computers. In India and Brazil, machines have already begun to practice primary care, and in some ways they perform much more accurately than human doctors. (LINK 26) And with the news of Apple’s Healthbook, it’s not difficult to imagine annual physicals becoming a thing of the past. When your phone has the ability to constantly monitor your blood sugar, heart rate, body weight, hydration, and perform other health tests, is there any reason to get a follow up from a human doctor?