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
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.
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, artificial intelligence, 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.
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.
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
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.
Believe it or not, writers are at risk too. 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:
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.
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.
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.
Driverless cars are here, 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 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 because self-driving trucks can run 24 hours a day with no breaks.
With that in mind, human drivers need not apply.
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 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!