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Man's Best Friend
No Sector Is Safe from Robots

If you work in law or healthcare, the robots have you in their sights. That’s one take on a new Guardian piece on the robotization of knowledge jobs (h/t Tyler Cowen). The piece zeroes in on three fields where tech-driven change looks to be particularly important: law, architecture, and health care. More:

Knowledge-based jobs were supposed to be safe career choices, the years of study it takes to become a lawyer, say, or an architect or accountant, in theory guaranteeing a lifetime of lucrative employment. That is no longer the case. Now even doctors face the looming threat of possible obsolescence. Expert radiologists are routinely outperformed by pattern-recognition software, diagnosticians by simple computer questionnaires. In 2012, Silicon Valley investor Vinod Khosla predicted that algorithms and machines would replace 80% of doctors within a generation.

In their much-debated book The Second Machine Age, Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee argued that we now face an intense period of creative destruction. “Technological progress,” they warned, “is going to leave behind some people, perhaps even a lot of people, as it races ahead … there’s never been a worse time to be a worker with only ‘ordinary’ skills and abilities to offer, because computers, robots and other digital technologies are acquiring these skills and abilities at an extraordinary rate.”

The article doesn’t mention another field that will soon experience this kind of disruption: journalism. Still reeling after the death of print and often bewildered by the challenges of online advertising, journalism is now being automated by writing robots. Robots already exist that can mine data for a given field (e.g. sports or finance), pick out the important pieces of data (“surprising news”), and fit those pieces into pre-existing narratives. That is the basic process of writing articles, and the nuts and bolts of it could certainly be done by machine.

All this sounds pretty grim. And indeed Brynjolfsson and McAfee, quoted above, take a darker view of these trends, stating that it’s a very bad time to be ordinary. But the technological revolution, like other major economic upheavals before it, will be both creative and destructive. We shouldn’t forget that this revolution will likely give more people than ever a higher quality of life. For example, new innovations transform the delivery of health care, a sector in which existing inefficiencies are driving us bankrupt and burdening the consumer.

And not everyone believes that lawyers and doctors will be rendered obsolete. The Guardian piece quotes analysts who think the legal and health care fields will still have jobs for humans, but only if employees in these fields learn how to use technology as a force multiplier. (Tyler Cowen’s latest book is particularly good on this point.) Indeed, even journalists who embrace technology will be able to do better work by using the output of reporter algorithms as a jumping off point for deeper analysis.

Pessimists also tend to ignore the enormous potential in service jobs. As technology frees individuals from the drudgery of routine tasks, people will also be free to think up new and creative services to sell each other. We will need smart policies—some of which we’ve outlined here—to make this transition work, but the possibilities are there. Whether we take advantage of them or not is up to us.

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  • rheddles

    Realtors sure have been put out of business.

  • Honk

    Neither of these jobs are creativity based. They are both rote memorization based. Very different!

  • Anthony

    Doctors should be a little bit secure. Even if the mind power aspects of the job are done by robots, doctors can become nurses, who do the physical aspects of the job that cannot be automated. Oh course that means a depressing pay cut, but it’s worth noting that nurses still make an above average salary.

  • Boritz

    Robots would be ideal even in some jobs that are considered highly creative.
    Example: press secretary
    I am not programmed to respond to that…
    I am not programmed to respond to that…
    Press 1 for main menu…

    • f1b0nacc1

      Watching the last set of briefings, I believe that they have already implemented a robotic press secretary

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