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How Robot-Proof is Your Career?

The concept of artificial intelligence (AI) is something that has always deeply fascinated me. Not only are the economic and social possibilities stemming from the rise of intelligent robots almost boundless, but the way in which it challenges our notions about what it means to be intelligent, to be conscious, to have feelings - to be human, even – is profoundly engrossing. I think it’s a topic which should be of interest to everyone because the development of AI and its consequences is an essentially interdisciplinary pursuit involving all of us, from theoretical mathematicians, computer scientists, and psychologists to philosophers, sociologists, and businesspeople.

But even if you’re not interested in AI, AI is most certainly interested in you. More specifically, it is interested in stealing your job. Machines have long been able to outperform human workers in terms of speed, efficiency, endurance, strength, and cost effectiveness, but until recently, automation seemed to have reached a natural limit. This can largely be explained by the relatively primitive state of AI: able to carry out repetitive tasks and complex computations, but only within narrow and clearly defined parameters. This severely limited their practical usage, mainly to work on factory assembly lines. However, the exponential development of AI is changing all this. 15 years ago, a $1,000 computer was on a par with the brain of an insect. Today $1,000 can buy you a computer with the intelligence of a mouse. In the coming decade, this metric is expected to surpass that of human intelligence.

Accordingly, the global sale of industrial robots has more than doubled in the last four years. Although still dominated by sales in the automobile sector and other secondary industries, there are signs that AI is starting to gain a foothold in other areas. It is now widely predicted that in the coming decades, human jobs will come under enormous pressure from robots in all kinds of fields, including traditional professions such as medicine, law, and yes, even education. As I write this, I can’t help but wonder when an algorithm will be developed which can accurately and reliably interpret and grade a paper. At the moment, that seems like an appealing proposition, but what about when a computer is able to carry out all the functions of a university lecturer?

The unfortunate truth is that, in the future, very few jobs will be completely secure against the relentless rise of AI, even in roles which today may seem unassailable. So what career decisions can we make in order to safeguard our future employability? Well, unfortunately there is no easy answer to this question, which will probably come to define the 21st Century. However, I would offer the following snippets of advice:

 • First of all, be aware. History teaches us that those who are ignorant of macro-developments such as this are nearly always the ones who suffer the most as a consequence. So, don’t bury your head in the sand and pretend it’s not happening.

 • Secondly, embrace it. Every great technology shift produces winners and losers, and it is those that understand and learn to co-opt it who ultimately benefit.

While it is perhaps natural to feel uneasy and threatened by the rise of AI, we should not resist it. We should study it deeply, get ahead of the trend, learn to utilise AI to enhance our professions in new and innovative ways, and become leaders in shaping the way in which humans and computers coexist in the future.

This article was written by Oliver Buxton