78 Skills that will be Difficult to Automate
Recently my wife Deb and I were eating at a local sushi restaurant, watching the itamae (sushi chefs) carefully preparing each meal.
In Japan, becoming an itamae of sushi requires years of on-the-job training and apprenticeship.
For this reason, I asked Deb if she would prefer eating sushi that was prepared by humans or the same kind of meals prepared by machines. After thinking about it for a bit, she said that she’d prefer having a human chef because she liked the inconsistencies that go along with having a person at the cutting board.
For her, machines meant perfect consistency and perfectly prepared meals and that was less appealing than a human-centric operation with randomness added to the equation.
The key point here is that when it comes to automation, the marketplace will decide, and the market is not always logical.
- We still go to concerts even though listening to prerecorded music at home is safer, more comfortable, and oftentimes better quality.
- We still go to museums even though we can witness most of the images online without having to wait in lines and fight crowds.
- We still go to coffee shops even though we can brew the same kind of coffee at home for far less money.
In each of these cases, the value of the experience far outweighs the incongruity of decisions being made.
Simply put, we live in a human-based economy, and humans are not always logical.
The Irrational Human
Will a robot’s smile ever be as comforting as a mother’s smile?
If a robot tells you you’re beautiful, will that ever mean as much as when your boyfriend or girlfriend says it?
It’s easy to start listing all the so-called inferior traits that people have. Robots don’t sweat, complain, have to urinate, take breaks, get angry, or make mistakes.
We generally don’t design machines to be cruel, insulting, lazy, vindictive, violent, irrational, clumsy, greedy, envious, hotheaded, power-hungry, selfish, shy, tactless, superficial, or stupid.
However, humans come with a number of positive characteristics to offset all the negative ones. We can also be friendly, helpful, charming, warmhearted, risk-taking, courageous, empathetic, inspiring, bold, brilliant, resourceful, benevolent, gracious, humble, and forgiving.
When it comes to designing machines to replace humans, we often forget how enormously complex we are.
We have a need to compete, a need to belong, a sense of purpose, we crave attention, love, sex, importance, and the human touch. We must never underestimate the power of the human touch.
The Human Economy
Yes, we are all flawed individuals, and as such, we have a number of basic needs.
We need things like water, food, shelter, clothing, safety, and security. Once those needs are met, a number of other needs kick in like our need for belonging, companionship, love, intimacy, and family.
As our lower level needs are met, we move up Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs to things like self-respect, self-esteem, status, fame, recognition, power, and freedom.
While on the surface we come across as incomplete beings, lacking in so many areas, the reality is that our needs are what drives our economy.
Every human deficiency creates a new market.
Grocery stores wouldn’t exist if we didn’t need food. The housing industry wouldn’t exist if we didn’t need shelter and safety. The automobile industry wouldn’t exist without our need for power, status, and freedom.
Ironically, the reason robots exist is to support our basic human needs.
Robots, on the other hand, do not have the same kind of needs.
The Great “Either-Or” Debate
Will we buy music that’s generated by machines or music produced by humans?
Will we buy machine-made art, watch a robo-ballet, attend a car race with only driverless cars, or sit in a stadium to watch robo-athletes?
In virtually all of these cases, we’ll choose to do both. Certainly we will mostly choose one over the other, but we’ll buy human art along with robo-art. We’ll attend a human-run restaurant one day and a robo-restaurant the next. We’ll cheer on our favorite human team with one set of friends and cheer on our favorite robo-athletes with another.
We will also love some robots and hate others.
We don’t live in an “either-or” world. Rather, our human culture has grown up around a more inclusive “both-and” economy.
Yes, these new options will compete with each other, causing fewer restaurant workers per restaurant, and fewer artists and musicians to fill today’s demands. However, as demand increases, we may actually have more people working in these fields.
Our struggle will be to find the optimal balance. The best restaurant owners will use robots to gain efficiency; the best artists will use robots to produce far more art; and the best musicians and athletes to play with robots instead of play against them.
Tasks and Skills that will be Difficult to Automate
When we factor all of this thinking into a few practical guidelines, the safest jobs will form around:
- Complex systems too expensive to automate
- Creative endeavors that only humans can appreciate
- Human to human interactions that produce an emotional response
- Decisions that need human-based reasoning
- Complicated outputs that demand a human translator
- Situations that require the human touch
- Settings where the loyalty of hacker-proof humans is preferable over digital machines
- Human to human valuations
- Positions where humans control robots
- Human to human competition
As I step through this list, please understand that I’m talking about things that will be “difficult” to automate, but probably not impossible.
Once again, it boils down to this question. Given a choice, will people prefer food that is made by humans or food that is made by machines?
Complex systems too expensive to automate
While there may be no such thing as a “complex system too expensive to automate,” the more complex the system, the more humans will be involved to oversee potential breaking points.
1. Space launches
2. Asteroid mining
3. Nanotech research
4. Deep ocean research
5. Demographic studies
6. Linguistics analysis
7. Material science
8. Failure analysis
Creative endeavors that only humans can appreciate
We have a great love for what creative people produce. Invariably we will use machines to help in these endeavors, but there will always be people directing the effort.
9. Artistic performances – painting, sculpting, dance, and design
10. Musical performances
12. Fashion designers
13. Interior designers
14. Industrial designers
15. Beauty parlors
16. Reputation designers and managers
Human to human interactions that produce an emotional response
These may seem like tiny pieces of humanity, but the value of these nuanced interfaces play an extraordinary role in our relational experiences.
17. An encouraging smile
18. A persuasive argument
19. A personal handshake
20. A hug
21. A romantic kiss
22. A convincing sales pitch
23. A massage
24. Multiple facets of sexual relations and procreation
Decisions that need human-based reasoning
As our capabilities grow, we will see an ever-increasing need for ethical oversight. Our ability to destroy things will soon exceed our ability to create things, and we’ll need ever-vigilant watchdogs to protect humanity.
25. Creation of new laws, policies, and regulation
26. Government oversight
27. Basic troubleshooting
28. Business planning
29. Marketing strategies
30. Managing animal shelters
31. Child care workers
32. Basic and advanced problem solving
Complicated outputs that demand a human overseer or translator
As the number of sensors increase and the amount of data we’ll be dealing with on a daily basis exceeds human ability to comprehend, we’ll begin to automate the analysis. However, there will still be a need for human oversight to manage all the exceptions and edge cases.
33. Doctors and medical diagnosis
34. Data analytics
35. Judges and legal systems
36. Business executives
37. Privacy advocates and experts
38. Relationship building strategies
39. Birthing processes
40. Genealogical mapping
Situations that require the human touch
Humans are social creatures by nature, and strong social bonds invariably require human touch.
41. Teaching someone to sing, dance, or juggle
42. Teaching someone how to gracefully enter a room
43. Teaching someone how to win a debate
44. Teaching someone why it’s important to take a bath
45. Teaching someone to do gymnastics
46. Teaching someone to make a reasonable decision
47. Teaching someone the value of human life
Settings where the loyalty of hacker-proof humans is preferable over digital machines
Fallible humans may not seem like the strongest link in a secure system but in many cases they become a crucial disconnected node in an otherwise hackable digital structure.
48. Guarding the President (or other important people)
49. Holding a secret
50. Personal confidant
51. Safeguarding corporate knowledge
52. Robot displacement specialists
53. Robot consultants
54. Robot lobbyists
55. Leaders of robot resistance groups
Human to human valuations
Since robots do not value objects the ways humans do, or make decisions about what constitutes a fair price on a product, the need for human value judgments will continue to be important.
56. Buying stocks or commodities
58. Government policy decisions
59. Decisions to act on a policy violation
61. Purchasing agents
62. Product and service ratings
63. Surveys and polls
Positions where humans control robots
There are many positions where people will use robots as tools and evolve along with their industries, growing with each new productivity advancement.
64. Business owners and managers
65. Software designers and coders
66. System engineers
67. Product designers
68. Robot maintenance and repair
69. Robot configuration specialists
70. Robot test technicians
71. Auctioneer that specializes in selling robots
Human to human competition
We’re much more interested in our standing among other humans over how we compare to robots.
72. Popular sports (i.e. football, basketball, soccer)
73. Olympics and Paralympics
74. Popularity competitions (i.e. beauty pageants, elections, etc.)
75. Loyalty programs
76. X-Prize competitions
77. Startup funding pitches
78. Conflict resolution
One of my readers, BJ Brown, recently passed along the following story:
When I was in northwestern Canada in the 70’s I ask one of the locals why they still used dogs instead of snowmobiles. He replied, “When I’m out in bad conditions, the dogs have as much stake in getting home as I do. The snowmobile doesn’t care.”
Will robots ever truly care?
Contrary to popular belief, most robot and AI systems currently act as a complement to humans rather than a replacement them.
According to most experts, we are still years away from general artificial intelligence and full automation. But eventually, there will come a day where robots will perform most tasks and the role of humans in the production cycle will become marginalized.
My goal in writing this was not to develop an exhaustive list of “safe jobs,” but rather to create tools for thinking about the human role in our future.
Robots are coming. They’re coming with or without our blessing, and in shapes and forms we can’t even imagine.
But they also come with limits, limits that we will soon discover along the way.
78 Skills that will be Difficult to Automate
I was thoroughly intrigued when I found out the Colorado School of Mines in Golden, Colorado was offering a degree in asteroid mining.
Yes, the idea of extracting water, oxygen, minerals, and metals from an asteroid sounds like science fiction to most people, but it’s not that far away. In fact, Colorado School of Mines’ newly launched “Space Resources” program will help people get in on the ground floor.
After thinking about the proactive nature of this approach, it became abundantly clear how backward thinking most colleges have become.
When colleges decide on a new degree program, they must first recruit instructors, create a new curriculum, and attract students. As a result, the talent churned out of these newly minted programs is the product of a 6-7 year pipeline.
For this reason, anticipatory-thinking institutions really need to be setting their sights on what business and industries will need 7-10 years from now.
The Risk-Averse Nature of Education
When Harvard professor Clayton M. Christensen released his best-selling book, The Innovator’s Dilemma, his core message that disruptive change is the path to success, was only partially embraced by higher education.
While many were experimenting with MOOCs and smart whiteboards, changes in the subject matter of their courses still evolved at the traditional pace of discovery.
This is not to say colleges are not innovative. Rather, the demands of today’s emerging tech environment are forcing business and industries to shift into an entirely new gear. And that most definitely includes our academic institutions.
From a management perspective, it’s far easier to oversee a contained system where all variables are constrained. But during times of change, we tend to give far more power to the “unleashers,” who are determined to test the status quo and release ideas and trial balloons to see what works.
For this reason, managers and creatives often find themselves on opposing sides, and the winners of these warring factions often determine what we as consumers see as the resulting ripples of change.
Offering Pilot Programs
When Facebook bought Oculus Rift in March 2014 for $2 billion, the job boards went crazy, as there was an instant uptick in the demand for VR designers, engineers, and experience creators. But no one was teaching VR, and certainly not the Oculus Rift version of it.
Colleges have a long history of being blindsided by new technologies:
- When eBay launched, no one was teaching ecommerce strategies
- When Myspace launched, no one was teaching social networking
- When Google launched, no one was teaching online search engine strategies
- When Uber launched, no one was teaching sharing economy business models
- When Apple first opened their App Store, no one was teaching smart phone app design
- When Amazon first allowed online storefronts, no one was teaching the Amazon business model
- When YouTube first offered ways to monetize videos, no one was teaching it
Since most academic institutions are only willing to put their name on programs with long-term viability, the endorsement of half-baked agendas does not come easy. However, that is exactly what needs to be done.
Colleges can no longer afford to remain comfortably behind the curve.
52 Future College Degrees
As a way of priming your thinking on this matter, here are 52 future degrees that forward-thinking colleges could start offering today:
- Space Exploration – space tourism planning and management
- Space Exploration – planetary colony design and operation
- Space Exploration – next generation space infrastructure
- Space Exploration – advanced cosmology and non-earth human habitats
- Bioengineering with CRISPR – policy and procedural strategies
- Bioengineering with CRISPR – advanced genetic engineering systems
- Bioengineering with CRISPR – operational implementations and system engineering
- Bioengineering with CRISPR – ethical regulation and oversight
- Smart City – autonomous traffic integration
- Smart City – mixed reality modeling
- Smart City – autonomous construction integration
- Smart City – next generation municipal planning and strategy
- Autonomous Agriculture – robotic systems
- Autonomous Agriculture – drone systems
- Autonomous Agriculture – supply chain management
- Autonomous Agriculture – systems theory and integration
- Swarmbot – design, theory, and management
- Swarmbot – system engineering and oversight
- Swarmbot – municipal system design
- Swarmbot – law enforcement and advanced criminology systems
- Cryptocurrency – digital coin economics
- Cryptocurrency – crypto-banking system design
- Cryptocurrency – regulatory systems and oversight
- Cryptocurrency – forensic accounting strategies
- Blockchain – design, systems, and applications
- Blockchain – blockchain for biological systems
- Blockchain – large-scale integration structures
- Blockchain – municipal system design strategies
- Global Systems – system planning, architecture, and design
- Global Systems – large-scale integration strategies
- Global Systems – operational systems checks and balance
- Global Systems – governmental systems in a borderless digital world
- Unmanned Aerial Vehicle - drone film making
- Unmanned Aerial Vehicle – command center operations
- Unmanned Aerial Vehicle – municipal modeling and planning systems
- Unmanned Aerial Vehicle – emergency response systems
- Mixed Reality - experiential retail
- Mixed Reality – three-dimensional storytelling
- Mixed Reality – game design
- Mixed Reality – therapeutic systems and design
- Advanced Reproductive Systems – designer baby strategies, planning, and ethics
- Advanced Reproductive Systems – surrogate parenting policy and approaches
- Advanced Reproductive Systems – organic nano structures
- Advanced Reproductive Systems – clone engineering and advanced processes
- Artificial Intelligence – data management in an AI environment
- Artificial Intelligence – advanced human-AI integration
- Artificial Intelligence – streaming AI data services
- Artificial Intelligence – advanced marketing with AI
- Quantum Computing – data strategies in a quantum-connected world
- Quantum Computing – quantum-level encryption and security
- Quantum Computing – quantum computing implementation strategies
- Quantum Computing – AI-quantum system integration
More so than any time in history, we have a clear view of next generation technologies. Naturally, we’re still a long way from 100% clarity, but for most of the technologies listed above, the shifting tectonic plates of change can be felt around the world.
Without taking decisive action, colleges run the risk of being circumvented by new types of training systems that can meet market demands in a fraction of the time it takes traditional academia to react.
The ideas I’ve listed are a tiny fraction of what’s possible when it comes to emerging tech degrees. Should colleges stick their neck out like Colorado School of Mines and offer degrees that may not be immediately useful? Adding to that question, how many college degrees are immediately useful today?
I’d love to hear your thoughts on this topic.