One of the perks I enjoyed during my three-year stint in China was being able to visit large, state-of-the-art manufacturing facilities. They were consistently impressive and boasted a multitude of high-tech industrial robots that wouldn’t seem out of place in an Isaac Asimov novel.
The factory that took the cake for me was one that is on the outskirts of Shenzhen, China’s tech capital. What struck me the most was how it was frantic with activity even though it was largely void of life. There were welding robots, assembly robots, CNC machines and many more that were busy making complex metal and plastic parts and fusing them together – with only minimal human supervision.
The manager told me that he, like many in China, firmly believed this was not just the future of manufacturing but of most other industries as well. Being in the robotics industry, it made a lot of sense to me.
Robots can work around the clock, have low recurring costs (though they do have a steep up-front cost), don’t complain about working conditions, don’t take days off on a whim and certainly don’t decide to tender their resignation after working a mere few months.
Fast forward to today’s Covid-19-ravaged economy and this vision of the world is crystallising at an ever-faster rate.
According to the Social Security Organisation (Socso), job losses in Malaysia have increased by 42% year-on-year for this first quarter (Q1 2020). It says: “This trend is only expected to accelerate from April 2020 onwards, with job losses increasing by 50% to 200% year-on-year for each subsequent quarter in 2020”.
Furthermore, the unemployment rate is expected to exceed 6% this year, the highest in 30 years, dwarfing that of the 1997 Asian financial crisis and the 2008 global recession. As of May, a staggering 826,100 Malaysians were out of jobs. I wouldn’t be surprised if it exceeds a million by the end of the year.
This is worrying news. I personally know a few people who have lost their jobs due to the pandemic and the subsequent lockdown, just as I’m sure you do. In addition, many workers have had to endure painful salary cuts.
But regardless of the pain that many are going through, the economic machine will need to be fed and kept running. Among other things, the pandemic laid bare the vulnerabilities of a largely human-powered economy and the perils of a lack of automation.
One notable example of this was when many of the largest meat-processing plants in the US were forced to close down as thousands of their workers were infected with Covid-19. This threatened the country’s food supply, alarming the government which then designated it a “critical infrastructure” so as to keep it open.
Similarly, China, the world’s largest producer of active pharmaceutical ingredients, was forced to temporarily shutter many of its manufacturing plants due to Covid-19, shocking supply chains worldwide.
Such volatility will undeniably act as a wake-up call to corporations everywhere, spurring them to accelerate their automation efforts and to further reduce their reliance on their human workforce.
In a world with such job insecurity, it’s imperative that you know how to screen potential jobs for how Artificial Intelligence (AI)-proof they are. Given a long enough timescale, I’m fairly confident that almost nothing will be AI-proof but at least for the next 20 years, it’s certainly possible to be proactive in identifying and pursuing careers that are especially resilient to AI advancements.
Here’s a simple checklist that can help you navigate the jobscape for the next 20 years:
|What AI is bad at||Examples of AI-proof
|Jobs that require coming up with a “why”.
(AI can’t tell you why you should do something but once you give it the input required, it excels at telling you how to do it)
|Business leader, human resource manager|
|Performing cognitively complex, persuasive and/or creative work||Fiction writer, scientist, defence lawyer, special education teacher|
|Performing complex manual labour or one that requires dexterity in an unstructured environment||Construction worker, nurse, oil rig worker, mechanic|
|Work that requires empathy, compassion or a “human touch”||Psychiatrist, therapist, caregiver|
If your job doesn’t satisfy the four criteria above, fret not. It just means that it’s about time you think of either switching careers, picking up some new skills, or somehow adding enough value to the job so that it will be more AI-resistant.
And even if your job is on the list, keep in mind that new technology is very likely still eroding its scope – beneficially to a large extent and allowing you more bandwidth to work on the parts of it that are more meaningful, but at the same time slowly but surely also making you obsolete in the long term.
The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.