Skills or no skills; we could all be Low-skills

In the last few years or so, I’ve observed that the mainstream media tends to call any kind of job where you use your hands low-skilled.

To be honest with you, that’s clearly untrue: car mechanics are highly skilled, as are electricians, or plumbers.

But in the eyes of the media, its academics and white-collar professionals that are high-skilled, and anyone working with their hands low-skilled.  This is a dangerously delusional distinction, as we’ll see in a moment.

My point: the whole concept of “skill” is meaningless without considering the context.

robot factory workers

There’s no doubt that manufacturing automation is indeed taking jobs away from us humans. So far, we’ve seen this trend mostly in repetitive assembly-line work. Machines are fantastic at doing the same thing over and over again, and doing it perfectly. They don’t get bored or tired. They don’t need coffee breaks or demand salary increments. They work 24/7 and never complain.

So as someone who sits in a nice office and uses their brain all day, you don’t have anything to worry about, right? You’re a white-collar “knowledge worker” with a college degree, not one of those poor low-skilled about to be robotized workers.

The bad news is: the robots are coming for your job too. Employees of Japan-based Fukoku Mutual Life Insurance recently learned this the hard way.

Starting this month, Fukoku will replace 34 claim adjusters with IBM’s Watson artificial intelligence technology. Turns out the AI system reads and evaluates medical documents and other information faster and better than humans can. It’s also much cheaper. According to Quartz:

Fukoku Mutual will spend $1.7 million (200 million yen) to install the AI system, and $128,000 per year for maintenance, according to Japan’s The Mainichi. The company saves roughly $1.1 million per year on employee salaries by using the IBM software, meaning it hopes to see a return on the investment in less than two years.

Finance guys will tell you big business will jump at a two-year payoff. They can give the human workers a generous severance, grant themselves a big bonus for being so smart, and still come out ahead in a short period of time.

The technology to replace highly skilled white-collar workers exists right now. You may think your job is complicated and no machine can do it. I’m sure the Fukoku workers thought the same thing. Here’s another example, at Bridgewater Associates, the world’s largest hedge fund firm, a team is building software to automate most day-to-day investment management decisions… the kind currently made by highly paid executives.

AI systems get better every day. They learn faster than you do, and if they haven’t already surpassed you, they will. The only question is when.  So, really, we’ll all be low-skilled workers soon!  As I said above, “low-skilled” always has context. If the context is AI, and the AI keeps getting smarter, then more of us will slide into that low-skilled category.

At some point, education won’t matter. Even with three doctoral degrees and speaking 10 languages, you’d still be “low-skilled” compared to the AI.

There is some good news, though. There any area where humans can realistically outperform machines. Us people will be hired for things robots can’t do, for example dealing with interpersonal communication, empathy, compassion. For example in  journalism. Some news writing has already been automated, but as journalism is not a pure transmission of information, it isn’t a natural field for a robot to excel.  Artificial intelligence tends to solve problems methodically but the human brain is far better at making logical leaps of imagination. It is more intuitive, creative and better at persuasion. Humans can also combine their creativity with robot-surpassing dexterity to cut someone’s hair, for example, or cook a delicious meal.

Some machines may have learnt how to seem caring but humans still have an unsurpassed ability to empathise with others. The high-skill, high-pay jobs of the future may involve skills better measured by EQ than IQ, by jobs creating social as much as financial value. These profoundly human skills, along with others such as creativity, problem solving and caring, are the ones people will get hired for in the future,.

And finally, this process is ultimately self-defeating for the robot-pushers. At some point, there won’t be enough people with enough money to buy whatever the machines produce, because the machines will have put us all out of work. That can’t continue indefinitely.  Check out the second in this series where I look at those occupations that could be easily robotised and those occupations where it will be tough to use robots.

See you in a week.