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Automation has made certain professions an endangered species

SUPPOSE you had an appointment with a doctor this morning and found a newly qualified youngster sat behind the desk? How would you feel? Worried that they lack experience or reassured that they are up to date with all the latest knowledge and techniques? The truth is that about half of everything this newbie has been taught and learnt over the seven years of their formal education and training is now wrong. And for a more mature doctor, it is even worse. So who do you trust and where do you go?

This conundrum is not confined to the medical sector. Such is the rate of progress that all sectors are being affected by rapidly shortening ‘knowledge half-lives’. For those of us deep in the leading-edge technologies, this can be shorter than six months, while physicists enjoy 13 years, mathematicians are at over 50 years but marine biologists are down to three months or less. So where is your profession on this scale? Perhaps more importantly: is this putting you at risk?

The list of skilled jobs and professions that have been automated, drastically reduced, or redistributed out of existence is endless and appears to be growing fast. Examples from the past include telephone operators, typists, computer operators, millers, fitters and assemblers, and so on. At the same time, many new professions have been created: web designers, security specialists, software writers and testers, robot designers, etc. But we as individuals have also been liberated and empowered by rafts of new technologies and skill sets subsumed without training, fuss or bother. We are now the typists, secretaries and telephone operators.

So what happens next? This is going to speed up. Our jobs will be at risk of either massive enhancement or imminent destruction. Basic mechanical tools and machines enhanced human muscle power, while personal computers and networks amplified brain power, and artificial intelligence looks set to amplify our intellect at an individual, group and species level. The question is: is my job at risk or will it be massively enhanced? Here is a very small selection from my current best estimate at the extremes of imminent change engendered by automation, robotics, IT and new artificial intelligences:

For the scrap heap: Testers, tasters, analysts, advisers, educators, reporters, strategists, call centres, report writers, personal bankers, personal assistants, answering services, investment bankers, warehouse staff, tech support, stock traders, receptionists, forecasters, train drivers, researchers, drivers, agents, pilots.

For massive enhancement: Fabricators, geneticists, generalists, proteomists, multi-designers, problem solvers, longevity advisors, big data analysts, cellular programmers, material programmers, complexity analysts, security experts, entrepreneurs, technologists, consultants, architects, detectives, designers, engineers, modellers, scientists, medics.

What is interesting, and worrying, is the speed of change and our inability as individuals, groups, companies and societies to change. Our 17th century political systems and 18th century education schemes, not to mention our legal and economic systems, struggle to cope with this today and will struggle far more with what is to come. Massive disruption, turmoil and chaos may be the result and we as individuals will be measured by our responsiveness and ability to change. It will be vital to be an early adopter and embracer of change.

The future will belong to the innovators and risk takers; they will set the pace and steer change. So will it all settle down again to some steady-state norm? No one knows. But the biggest risks will centre on those hanging on to the old, looking to the past, and refusing to move on. However, there is another big unknown and potential for a major stall: The smartness of technology might just be offset by the dumbness of people. ?

Peter Cochrane is an IT consultant and former chief technologist at BT

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