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Are machines coming for your job? The answer may surprise you.

Unskilled manual laborers have felt the pressure of automation for a long time — but, increasingly, they’re not alone. The last few years have been a bonanza of advances in artificial intelligence.  As our software gets smarter, it can tackle harder problems, which means white-collar and pink-collar workers are at risk as well.

Here are eight jobs expected to be automated (partially or entirely) in the coming decades.

Call Center Employees

call-center

Telemarketing used to happen in a crowded call center, with a group of representatives cold-calling hundreds of prospects every day.  Of those, maybe a few dozen could be persuaded to buy the product in question.   Today, the idea is largely the same, but the methods are far more efficient.

Many of today’s telemarketers are not human. In some cases, as you’ve probably experienced, there’s nothing but a recording on the other end of the line. It may prompt you to “press ‘1’ for more information,” but nothing you say has any impact on the call — and, usually, that’s clear to you.

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But in other cases, you may get a sales call and have no idea that you’re actually speaking to a computer. Everything you say gets an appropriate response — the voice may even laugh. How is that possible? Well, in some cases, there is a human being on the other side, and they’re just pressing buttons on a keyboard to walk you through a pre-recorded but highly interactive marketing pitch. It’s a more practical version of those funny soundboards that used to be all the rage for prank calls.

Using soundboard-assisted calling — regardless of what it says about the state of human interaction — has the potential to make individual call center employees far more productive: in some cases, a single worker will run two or even three calls at the same time.  In the not too distant future, computers will be able to man the phones by themselves.

At the intersection of big data You Are The Product, Not The Client: The Personal Data Economy Explained You Are The Product, Not The Client: The Personal Data Economy Explained As Andrew Lewis once said "If you're not paying for something, you're not the customer; you're the product being sold". Think about the implications of that quote for a moment – how many free services... Read More , artificial intelligence Here's Why Scientists Think You Should be Worried about Artificial Intelligence Here's Why Scientists Think You Should be Worried about Artificial Intelligence Do you think artificial intelligence is dangerous? Does AI may pose a serious risk to the human race. These are some reasons why you may want to be concerned. Read More , and advanced natural-language processing lies Watson — IBM’s computer system that famously beat the top human champions on Jeopardy in 2011. One of its real-world applications is its ability to act as a “customer service agent” that takes calls and answers questions from consumers. With its exceptional capacity for natural-language processing and its ability to tap into large reserves of data, it has the potential to speak plainly with human customers and offer them advice on their specific questions, no matter how complex or technical. Several banks have already signed up to rent an updated version of Watson to do just that.

watson-jeopardy

As this technology continues to advance, there’s no question that companies will be more likely to invest in systems like Watson than human representatives for a whole host of jobs.

Accountants

calculator

Accounting software is nothing new; many accountants have relied on it for years. But the landscape is changing, with software becoming easier to use and more consumer-friendly than ever before. For startups and small businesses, automating their accounting needs is an attractive alternative to paying an expensive accountant.

The transition from professional accountants to do-it-yourself software solutions like Freshbooks and TurboTax won’t happen overnight, and there are a number of situations where human accountants will still be preferred, but most organizations will be perfectly happy to automate it as much as possible. As a result, the demand for accountants will decrease dramatically across many industries in the coming years.

Real Estate Agents

Real_Estate_Sign_-_The_Homefinding_Center

Traditionally, real estate agents have filled many important roles in the buying and selling of homes. They’re experts in real estate and the housing market, they know their communities well, and they’re good at selling properties to prospective buyers.

But we’re living in the information age. Everything you could possibly want to know is right at your fingertips. Online services like Trulia and Zillow provide a comprehensive search of all available properties, and sites like StreetAdvisor tell you everything you need to know about the neighborhood you’re considering. Real estate agents may have a conflict of interest when it comes to telling you about crime statistics and pollution levels, but you can get all of this information online, reliably and for free.

And, because many real estate agents have failed to keep up with technology, a tech-savvy seller could potentially reach more buyers independently than with an agent. Jay Neely, founder of a former real estate marketing startup, shared this perspective on Quora:

Run a Facebook ad campaign targeted at women engaged or married between the ages of 25 and 35 in your area, and create a Google AdWords pay-per-click campaign for the keywords “[neighborhood (not city) name] homes for sale”, “[neighborhood name] properties”, etc., and you are killing it in a way only a handful of agents per state can… at a fraction of the comparative price.

As we move forward, we’re going to see less and less of a dependence on real estate agents. They’ll likely stick around to facilitate deals and transactions, but many of their previous functions are beginning to fade away.

Writers

Believe it or not, writers are at risk too It's Happening: Robots May Be The Creative Artists Of The Future It's Happening: Robots May Be The Creative Artists Of The Future No machine or piece of software can emulate the passion of an artist, right? Wrong, sort of. Human creativity is important, but — sorry guys — the robots are coming for you too. Read More . Many of the news articles you’ve read over the last few years have been written by software, and you probably haven’t even noticed. Some of the world’s most reputable publications — Forbes, for example — regularly run computer-written articles. This is especially true in sports and finance, as those verticals are extremely data-oriented.

This is largely thanks to the work of Narrative Science, which trains computers to write news stories. Consider this excerpt from one of their computer-written articles:

Friona fell 10-8 to Boys Ranch in five innings on Monday at Friona despite racking up seven hits and eight runs. Friona was led by a flawless day at the dish by Hunter Sundre, who went 2-2 against Boys Ranch pitching. Sundre singled in the third inning and tripled in the fourth inning […]

Nothing too impressive — but can you tell that a machine wrote it? I can’t.

Similarly, about 10,000 new Wikipedia articles are written by a bot every single day. That amounts to about 8.5 percent of Wikipedia’s content overall.

On a larger scale, economist and author Phil Parker doesn’t actually write most of his books; he uses complex algorithms that can pen an entire book in just a few minutes. His company, ICON Group International, has written more than a million titles using his software.

Parker’s software can also write poetry:

computer-generated-poetry

Does this mean we’ll see a future with no human writers? No way. But we’d be kidding ourselves if we thought this technology wouldn’t replace some writers and reporters, particularly those who cover sports and finance.

Attorneys

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When most people think of attorneys, they think of legal counsel in a courtroom. But presenting evidence and speaking to a jury is only a tiny portion of what lawyers actually do. You’re more likely to find them in their offices, drafting legal documents and other paperwork, and digging through case law to find support for various legal arguments — things that computers can (and have) been trained to do.

Attorneys rely heavily on language. Computers are already capable of writing news articles and even entire books on technical subjects — imagine the potential of software that can draft legal documents, examine evidence in a case, and analyze past cases and their outcomes to structure arguments and legal documents independently.

LegalZoom, which allows you to form an LLC or incorporate your business without a lawyer, is already making waves in the legal industry. Phoenix attorney Richard Keyt reports:

If you are an attorney whose practice areas includes any of the types of “nonlegal” services offered by LegalZoom then you are competing with LegalZoom whether you want to admit it or not. One of my areas of practice is the formation of limited liability companies. I have formed 3,400+ LLCs since I started counting in 2002. My main competitor is LegalZoom, not other attorneys who charge a lot to form an Arizona LLC and do not give clients much in return.

There’s no question that software and artificial intelligence will continue to disrupt the legal industry, likely displacing a number of workers in the process.

Professional Drivers

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Driverless cars are here How Self-Driving Cars Will Change Transportation Forever How Self-Driving Cars Will Change Transportation Forever As we move into 2015, the question is no longer whether self-driving cars will replace manually driven cars, but how quickly they'll take over. Read More , and they’re already being tested on public streets in a few U.S. states. They’re better than human drivers in just about every way: they don’t have blind spots, they don’t get sleepy, and they don’t get distracted.  There are still significant challenges Here's How We'll Get to a World Filled With Driverless Cars Here's How We'll Get to a World Filled With Driverless Cars Driving is a tedious, dangerous, and demanding task. Could it one day be automated by Google's driverless car technology? Read More left to be solved, but Google feels confident they can have autonomous vehicles on the road within five years.

The availability of this new technology is going to revolutionize companies that depend on professional drivers.  Except in a few very challenging situations, autonomous vehicles will provide safer, cheaper, faster, and more reliable performance than humans.  That means no more cab, bus, or truck drivers.

When you need a ride, you’ll summon a driverless cab with your phone. When you want to take public transportation, a driverless bus will pick you up at the stop. When you ship a package, it’ll travel on a driverless truck — which will lead to faster shipments Is Amazon Prime A Good Deal? Is Amazon Prime A Good Deal? Amazon’s Prime membership has been around for several years now and has, over the years, gained some notable upgrades. Once no more than a free shipping offer, Prime is now a streaming media service on... Read More because self-driving trucks can run 24 hours a day with no breaks.

With that in mind, human drivers need not apply.

Medical Staff

IBM_Watson

Human doctors aren’t going anywhere in the foreseeable future, but their lower-level staff may soon find themselves replaced by computers that perform their jobs more accurately and efficiently.

Watson — the same computer system mentioned above in regards to customer service — is also being programmed to work in medicine, helping physicians diagnose diseases, evaluate patients, and prescribe treatments.

In this case, Watson would tap into medical journals, textbooks, individual patients’ medical history, and other sources to make a truly informed diagnosis and treat the patient accordingly.

“Watson, the supercomputer that is now the world Jeopardy champion, basically went to med school after it won Jeopardy,” said MIT’s Andrew McAfee in an interview last year. “I’m convinced that if it’s not already the world’s best diagnostician, it will be soon.”

Business Insider’s Lauren F. Freedman writes:

Watson is already capable of storing far more medical information than doctors, and unlike humans, its decisions are all evidence-based and free of cognitive biases and overconfidence. It’s also capable of understanding natural language, generating hypotheses, evaluating the strength of those hypotheses, and learning — not just storing data, but finding meaning in it.

With so much information at its disposal at any moment, Watson could be more knowledgeable and less prone to mistakes and oversights than people, making it an invaluable resource for any physician — and a major force for eliminating human workers.

Cashiers

Self_checkout_using_NCR_Fastlane_machines

Cashiers are probably the most obvious example of pink-collar job automation, if only because the transition is already happening.

I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve been served by human cashiers in the last year. Maybe that’s because I’m antisocial; maybe I just appreciate the convenience. Either way, it’s clear that self-scan checkout terminals are taking over retail stores everywhere.

And it makes sense: a single employee can oversee six or more self-scan lanes, whereas a typical cashier would be tied to a single register. Assuming the trend continues, it’s only a matter of time until major retailers switch to using self-scan terminals exclusively.

Lydia Depillis of the Washington Post has this to say:

If we’re dealing in first-person experiences here, I prefer checking out my own stuff. I’m a single urban dweller who picks up a few routine items several times a week on my bike, and can now deal with the machine at my neighborhood Giant without even thinking. And it seems my fellow shoppers are getting the hang of the system, too: Since self-checkout was introduced a few years ago, even the longest line moves very quickly (none of the self-checkout systems the Post tried in 2010 took longer than two minutes either).

For better or for worse, all of these professions are likely to be partly or completely automated over the next two decades. Technology is smarter than ever before, and as a result, it seems humans are less in-demand than ever before.

What do you think about this? Did we miss anything? Feel free to add your thoughts in the comments below!

Image Credits: Wikimedia Commons, Mark Hillary, Pixabay, Wikimedia Commons, Wikipedia, Pixabay, Wikimedia Commons, Wikipedia, Wikipedia

  1. Liao
    February 17, 2016 at 3:21 am

    You should include airline pilots and taxi drivers

  2. Anonymole
    January 23, 2016 at 6:47 pm

    Real estate agents are worthless thieves. Their services could be replaced, in every state, by a set of remote controlled robots dropped off inside a home, and a simple 3d panoramic view of the outside. That and TurboRE, the TurboTax version of home purchase software. Buying and selling a home needn't be any more complex than doing you taxes.

  3. Bob
    January 15, 2015 at 7:12 pm

    As far as self check outs are concerned, they still need improvement for scanning produce, error messages & needing help with the machine in general.

    • Brad Merrill
      June 12, 2015 at 9:21 pm

      For sure. But I still tend to prefer that over the traditional checkout experience.

  4. Dmitry
    January 10, 2015 at 9:55 pm

    Several points:
    Accountants. While for small-scale busynesses it is possible that "AI"can replace accountant (though there's question of legal issues remains - it's owner or some not specifically-trained clerk whose signature and thus responsibility will be at mercy of sofware's quirks and their consequences, not to mention that salary of part-time accountant is often lower than subscription cost for such software or even basic REALLY searchable legal database), for relatively large busynesses 'crap in - crap out' is, was and will be permanent problem no software can SOLVE in legal non-fineable way.
    Attorneys - very similar situation aggravated by software not really operating in concepts the way people do, only with some correlations in data...that were defined by it's programmers, imperfectly.
    Drivers- it'll look...good until first successful acts of hacking/sabotage . Remember all those 'laser pointer' incidents? Then imagine some simple device/"chaff dispencer" that blinds car autopilots thus stopping them dead due to safety reasons. And it's even before invoking hollywoodish picture of some unfound critical flaw ...or criminals actually taking control.
    Medical staff - a lot of nurse jobs could be eliminated...to be replaced by several technician ones. Of course in reality there's more chances of waldo's taking over a lot of said nursing jobs.
    Writers: while some 'content creators' jobs can be endagered, real creative jobs will be not. Though i imagine that 'creators' similar to a lot of current 'star' pop-song writers are in danger too.
    As for cashiers...there's not much of such automation in my area but my experience is that first convinience store to use this system actually lost number of customers - both because lot of people dislike to actually do checkout by themselves and because replacement of 1 cashier with 1.5 checkout system actually led to slower chekout.

  5. Ray
    January 9, 2015 at 9:23 am

    The actual administrative and repetitive aspects of the respective jobs can be automated not the thinking portion. So for example, in terms of accountant, keeping the books etc can be automated. However, the insights and ideas which a well qualified accountant cannot be obtained by a robot.

    Same for writers: seriously, a robot is incapable of emotions. Writing is about emotions and feelings as much as it is of words.

  6. Mart
    January 9, 2015 at 7:50 am

    Somebody has been watching "Humans Need Not Apply" by CGP Grey on YouTube.

  7. Gerry
    January 8, 2015 at 11:38 pm

    The claim is made that "decisions are all evidence-based and free of cognitive biases and overconfidence." I don't think so. Scientific conclusions are expressed in research papers written by scientists with cognitive biases, and machines are programmed by coders with cognitive biases. Even when machines do all the science and all the programming, who's to say that any intelligence is without its biases?
    Also, I've seen some appallingly badly-written articles in Forbes lately, but come to think of it, they've all had bylines. Of course, the guy with the heavy Indian accent at the call center calls himself Bill.

    • American
      May 8, 2015 at 7:30 am

      They don't have emotions. They are not a product of millions of years of evolution. They simply follow directions and complete tasks. And better, and better, and better, and better as time goes on.

      In fact, the main reason for inefficiency in the workplace is personal problems, illness, and being a human - needing time off, 8 hour workday, etc... all things that a robot will not suffer from.

      It is pointless to fight the wave of automation within the capitalist system. Its like trying to stop a gun from firing by putting a flower in the barrel. The only way to survive is to transform into a system that guarantees basic income to all of its residents. This will be the opposite of capitalism but at some point we have to realize that we are humans, we cant take our wealth with us, and what the hell are we doing all this for if not to live? Capitalism is brainwashing. It is mindless and heartless and soulless. Once we reclaim our humanity, and let robots do the work, and no longer have "rich people" we can actually survive to the future. But as long as we prop up this bullshit free market capitalist system, only the .1 of 1% will survive into the future.

  8. dragonmouth
    January 8, 2015 at 7:01 pm

    "Call Center Employees"
    I suppose a computer/robot can be programmed to use a Chinese Menu in its responses to customers. Robots can be programmed to speak any language without a foreign accent.

    "Accountants"
    Can robots be programmed to "cook" the books?

    "Real Estate Agents"
    If houses were loaves of bread or bags of onions, maybe. A robot cannot be as responsive to customers' needs as a human.

    "Writers"
    Anything formulaic, definitely. Anything really creative, it will some time before robots are capable of creativity.

    "Attorneys"
    Same as Writers. It will be a while before a robot is capable of arguing a case. Robots would make better judges than attorneys.

    "Professional Drivers"
    If all cars are driverless, definitely yes, especially if controlled from one, central location. If they have to contend with large numbers of human drivers, there will be trouble. Robot drivers will be better mechanically than humans, but they will not be able to anticipate all the stupid human tricks. Just because a few driverless cars operated under controlled conditions have done well does not mean that in the uncontrolled wild they will perform equally well.

    "Medical Staff"
    Only until patients start dying. Then the robot attorneys will sue the crap out of the hospitals and diagnosis will be again done by humans.

    "Cashiers"
    They are already here.

  9. ReadandShare
    January 8, 2015 at 6:55 pm

    One thing I am very weary of is taking taxis in foreign (unfamiliar) cities. I welcome the day of driverless taxis. I think I would trust a central program more than individual human drivers (even though I know not all are bad apples).

    As an aside... imagine a courthouse full of robotic lawyers, judge and jury -- all well versed in the law! But then, someone will quickly realize that all we need is one robot -- a well-versed, impartial, incorruptible judge.

    • dragonmouth
      January 8, 2015 at 7:11 pm

      "a well-versed, impartial, incorruptible judge."
      But that would mean actual "equal justice for all". We can't have that! How will the politicians be able to use their positions for personal gain?! How will the high and mighty manage to get away with crimes and misdemeanors?!

      I suppose robots can be re-programmed.

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