We have long been used to manual work being automated. We are finally at a juncture where even knowledge work is starting to see the same fate. Weren’t engineering, medicine and law supposed to be future-proof careers?
For example, the world’s largest hedge fund Bridgewater Associates is building a piece of software to automate the day-to-day management of the firm, including hiring, firing and other strategic decision-making.
“The role of many remaining humans at the firm wouldn’t be to make individual choices but to design the criteria by which the system makes decisions, intervening when something isn’t working,” wrote the Wall Street Journal, which spoke to five former and current employees.
Knowledge work is no longer future proof and that is scary.
In 2013, Oxford University researchers estimated that 47 percent of U.S. jobs could be automated within the next two decades. A recent report from McKinsey says that while few jobs are fully automatable, 60% of occupations are at least 30% automatable. In Singapore, nearly one in five employees fears that automation will take away their jobs, a survey by recruitment firm Randstad found.
Even extremely smart and creative programmers are concerned for the sustainability of their careers. They are looking to outsmart their own craft everyday. A friend at Uber says,
“We automate ourselves out of a job everyday (using machine learning).”
A recent paper by Dana Remus (UNC School of Law) and Frank S. Levy (MIT) examines automation in the legal profession. It characterizes much of the current debate regarding automation replacing knowledge work as existing at the extremes. However, it showed that though technology is undoubtedly advancing and changing the nature of legal practice, it is displacing lawyers at only a modest pace.
The common thread for automation seems to be codification. Can we specify rules that codify what we are doing?
According to “Only Humans Need Apply” — a recent book by top consultant Thomas H. Davenport and Harvard University Press editor Julia Kirby, the following are some of the signs that your job is at risk of automation:
Economists Frank Levy and Richard Murnane say in their book (The New Division of Labor: How Computers Are Creating the Next Job Market) that the great strengths of humans are expert thinking and complex communication. Erik Bynjolfsson and Andy McAfee add a third to this: ideation. These are not considered codifiable, for now.
This might have something to do with how our brains work vs. how machine ‘thinking’ works. And we don’t entirely understand how our brain works. But this may also be changing (see sidenote at the end).
There a few things we can do to stay relevant as the world of work transforms.
Sidenote: One theory to understand the brain is Pattern Recognition Theory of Mind (PRTM), by Ray Kurzweil. He claims,“it describes the basic algorithm of the neocortex (the region of the brain responsible for perception, memory, and critical thinking). PRTM basically says that the neocortex is organised into pattern recognition units. Each of these units are groups of neurons that learn through enough examples (~training data?) to recognise some pattern. Some recognise simple patterns as the letter “T”. Others can identify the beauty of a play by Shakespeare or the complexity of love. Also, we don’t always understandhow a neural net gives the right answer even when it works well. So does it really matter whether or not we understand something as long as we can replicate it?