14 June 2020
Will robots take my job? It depends on you
I am not a fan of the expression “soft skills”. I prefer “human skills”. The ones that distinguish us from robots. And the ones that will ensure that robots don’t take away our jobs.
It is not my intention to present scary visions, but just like Jack Ma – a Chinese entrepreneur and founder of Alibaba – what I mean is that if we don’t change something quickly in our thinking about education, we will have a problem. And this also applies to lifelong learning and self-education. All in the context of data verified by a scientific method, not as part of shamanic “new age” theories about visualizing success and attracting mammon. For many reasons – also practical – it is better to choose scientific verification than opinions of celebrities backed by no science at all. There is a website – willrobotstakemyjob.com. All you have to do is type in your profession or dream job and precise algorithms will tell you with heartless honesty what the future will bring. It did calm me down, I must say. Teachers and trainers are on the safe side. There is only 1.7% of the estimated probability that robots will take my job. However, take accountants, HR specialists, customer service centres staff, people who work in large database centres, for instance – they should look for an alternative. I am serious here. Any work that can be automated will be automated. This is not a dark vision of the future. It is the future that is happening now, although it is unevenly distributed. This does not mean, however, that there will be no work for anyone, and in the gloomy dystopia the robots will work and we will impassively tap on smartphones, destroying the last remnants of neurons there are. Cal Newport, the author of “Deep Work”, a book heavily backed by reliable scientific research, confirms that simple activities with automation potential will disappear. And work will most likely be done by those who fall into one of three categories – people who can learn very difficult things very quickly and with a high degree of precision; people who will achieve mastery in their field, and people who will have access to capital. Karl Marx wrote about the latter group. But the truth is quite cruel. Really few of us will manage to get to that group.
However, nothing stands in our way to just keep on learning to secure a place in the first two groups. Still, as Cal Newport points out, we need to develop the ability to learn difficult things in quite a short time. This, in turn, requires extended periods of intense, deep-focus work, where we do not give in to the tyranny of distractions: external (notifications, e-mails, phone calls or social media) and internal ones (thoughts, impulses). Sounds unrealistic? I bet. Technology makes us less capable of staying focused for longer than a few minutes. The ability to work with uninterrupted attention has become a rarity, even for us – adults, let alone young people who grow up with smartphones in their hands. And they keep on shifting their attention, activating millions of neurons to perform trivially simple activities. In the future, no one will pay for the fact that someone can ‘like’ a picture on Instagram – a skill that even a five-year-old has. What can help? For example, practising mindfulness and rational but not radical conversation with yourself about social media and its impact on us. This is where TED comes in. Cal Newport’s speech could be recommended to this end. Another recommendation is a very valuable lecture by Zeynep Tufekci, who in a gloomy way makes us realize that the only goal for the creators of technology is to capture and maintain our attention, which can then be packed and sold. First awareness, then action. The aforementioned Jack Ma says: “Teachers must stop teaching knowledge”. We have to teach our kids something unique so that machines can never catch up with us. In this way, 30 years later, kids will have a chance. I make the same commitment when teaching adults. I teach them unique skills. The ones that will not make robots take away their jobs so easily. Knowledge is not a problem. Human skills become one. The ability to communicate effectively, in a smart and precise manner. The ability to engage in high-level critical thinking and the ability to synthesise ideas. What will certainly also count is deep work – understood not only as working on oneself, but also on the development of a new skill. Because we will have to educate ourselves all the time. Let us treat it as a light-hearted announcement, not a threat. Jack Ma said in Davos that “The computer will always be smarter than you are; they never forget, they never get angry. But computers can never be as wise a man. The AI and robots are going to kill a lot of jobs, because in the future it'll be done by machines. Service industries offer hope – but they must be done uniquely”.
Jack Ma also stressed that there are four things we should teach children: values, believing (understood as belief in the future and skills – it has nothing to do with religion), independent thinking, teamwork and care for others (empathy). I think that this is exactly what we as adults should keep reminding ourselves of. About the values underlying the way we live and do business. About critical thinking and verifying knowledge and information. About teamwork and empathetic care. And the ability to work in deep focus. All that perfectly fits the concept of human skills I mentioned above. “These are the soft skills. The knowledge will not teach you that. That’s why I think we should teach our kids sports, music, painting, art.” – explained the Chinese billionaire. He added that everything we teach should be as far away as possible from what machines can learn. As Minouche Shafik, the Director of the London School of Economics, pointed out, also at the Davos Forum: “Everything that is repetitive or routine will be automated”. This is not a threat. It is a warning. The world in which university graduates will work in 20 years’ time will be completely different. We know the directions of development. We know who will gain in the new economy. It is not too late to start developing human skills and master deep work.