We always picture the people wearing power armor exoskeletons to be fighting aliens on a distant planet, but in the future they’ll probably be the people replacing your kitchen counters. So today we will be talking about jobs and careers folks might have in the future.
A very tricky topic and one we should probably preface with some boundaries. The future will involve more and more automation, but today we will ignore any period of the future where artificial intelligence can match or exceed a human at anything. One of the problems we have with a lot of fields of scholarship when trying to apply them to futurism is that their basic paradigms don’t always work well when yanked out of current contexts.
For instance, in economics, supply and demand assumes that as overall prosperity grows, people want more stuff they either always wanted but couldn’t afford, or new stuff we’ve invented, and that human jobs will emerge to supply those. Very right and true, but not if it’s all machines doing it. Of course we’re not really worried what people will do for jobs at that point since they wouldn’t need one, possibly because they hit post-scarcity, or possibly because they’re dead after some machine rebellion. So we’ll be focused on the period where there are stuff machines can’t do that require people.
This might be a fairly long period too, as while I expect we’ll see some major improvements in AI and neural networks in the next couple decades, I can’t see us permitting human-level robots into mass production, even once that’s economically feasible. We may one day, but there’s likely to be a protracted period where it’s not permitted or feasible. Until that time comes, we maintain the basic supply and demand principle with increased demand for a product creating new jobs.
That has a secondary effect too, as the more prosperity you have, the less of a threshold needs to be met for a demand to be viable to supply. You’ve got three converging factors, individual people have more resources, many of the things they needed those resources for are also now cheaper, and people who really want to make a product or supply a service don’t need to do as well with them to support themselves.
I was looking over various growing industries listed by the US Bureau of Labor and I saw a funny one, Genetic Counselor, which caught my eye as my sister had gotten her DNA tested and we got my mother a test for Mother’s Day and I was helping her go over the results just prior to writing this article. This is a big growth field, percentage-wise, but the estimate was for a mere 900 new jobs over the next decade. Alternatively, a bunch of the others listed as big growers like Medical Aides were growing by an estimated million new jobs in that period.
I’d intended to look more today at what the main new jobs would be, rather than small niche specialties, and we will still try to do that, but at the same time, it is worth remembering the history of humanity has been one of specialization and that’s generally been increasing. “Farmer” used to be the job title that the majority of humanity had, and prior to that “hunter” or “gatherer. “Now it’s a very small percentage of the population, and the last big job that could be said to employ a sizable fraction of the populace was factory worker. Both are themselves overly general, a wheat farmer has little in common with a herder or someone who grows grapes, similarly a hunter raised to hunt in moderate forest is very different in skills than someone who hunts in jungles or swamps or tundra.
Academics tended to view these as fairly unskilled, and while some jobs in early factories were unskilled, let’s not overlook that modern factories generally do require a lot of skills and that on the whole there’s never really been a lot of unskilled labor fields, just some jobs in some fields where you could get a lot done with minimal training under the supervision of someone with more skill.
Elon Musk found this out recently to his cost. Tesla initially invested in a very expensive automated production line system at the Tesla factory. In February, though, they scrapped that expensive system and moved from using automated production lines back to human production lines. Elon Musk, who was previously heavily in favor of robotic automation, admitted in an April tweet that humans are underrated when it came to complex assembly tasks in the Tesla factory. The point is that humans are considerably more versatile than robots are and can undertake changes to production processes and more complex tasks better than robots can. As time goes on, this is likely to be less and less the case as automation improves.
However, as automation increases, so will the skill levels of artisans. More skill means better productivity at nearly everything. Less complex operations are the easiest ones to automate. A robot might replace folks flipping hamburgers at a fast food joint, but a chef is much harder to automate. Also, with more automation comes more breakdowns and repairs.
Robots are not very good at the moment at diagnosing and repairing other robots, so skilled repair and commissioning technicians will be needed in ever greater numbers. But the Chef is a good example. Almost every industry has these kind of top-tier jobs held in much higher respect that we can expect to see demand rise for as more people have the resources for it.
Gardeners and landscapers are fairly new as a major profession, they’ve been around a long time but folks didn’t have the resources to employ someone to do this, and the degree of landscaping on the average home was fairly minimal. I don’t see us backing away from that though, while at the same time I’d expect further automation there too, so this could easily end up as a smaller field where much more expertise is needed.
Your average modern landscaper does need to be one-part botanist, one-part mechanic, one-part artist, and several parts laborer. In the future, I’d expect the labor portion of that to dwindle off but see the technical and botanical expertise increase. There are already a fair number of folks with that degree of skill, but like chefs, they’re the minority of folks in that profession at this time. The future won’t see much demand for someone to mow your lawn, that’s a job for a robot, but it would probably see a high demand for someone to design your landscape, and see to it that it’s maintained.
Expect the same for parallel professions like interior design, fashion consultants, folks who consult on someone’s social media profile or their profile on business or dating sites. Consulting, and a good consultant or artist isn’t just someone who has a better image or plan than their client does, but rather can help them take the image they had and make it into something that still feels like their original idea, only complete.
There are very few aspects to our society to which something like that would not apply. So if hunting and gathering was replaced by farming, as the main area of work most folks did, and farming was replaced by factory work, and by the service sector nowadays, I would bet on personal consulting as the one that replaces it as the largest single fraction of the workforce. This is arguably already the case, since so much of the current service sector already matches up to this. The emphasis of that is obviously skills, and we might go so far as to say in the future, all jobs will require skills, but as I mentioned before, this has always been the case, it’s just that in the past there was a lot of unskilled grunt work to be done by folks who hadn’t picked up the skills for that profession yet.
One industry that will grow a lot in coming years, at least in terms of raw output, is construction. That’s an example that’s problematic because it will get more automated, but at the same time folks tend to forget how much of that can’t be easily automated. We see examples of houses being 3D printed, which is neat, but the time and cost of those tends to ignore that framing a house is not the hard part or the majority of the cost. It’s all the plumbing and wiring and hanging drywall or tiling floors that’s a pain.
There is, obviously, a lot of room for automation in there, but there’s also room for a lot of augmentation. You can have a robot able to lift thousands of kilograms for instance, or you can have a person wearing an exoskeleton do it. Makes for a fun job too since everyone wants to pilot a giant robot, just in this case you don’t have a machine gun on your arm, you’ve got a nail gun.
Many of the problems using exoskeletons we discussed in the Planetary Invasions article go away too, since you don’t need a powerful generator or battery in the suit, just one with enough juice for the pilot to walk across the room to plug themselves back in if someone tripped over their power cord.
Humans like to build stuff, and this is only likely to increase as we can devote more resources to it in the future, and it is still skilled labor. While much of it will likely be replaced by robots, and the folks in the apprentice roles doing the grunt work of lifting and fetching will probably decrease in number, they will also probably get to work wearing a 2-ton robot, which is a nice consolation prize.
You go visit your contractor on site and he’s maybe only got an apprentice or two helping him, but they are stalking around in what amounts to power armor looking like they should be getting launched out of a spaceship to fight aliens. Figure on a lot of work that we’re thinking might be automated in the future going to folks wearing exoskeletons instead, and it adds health benefits too, since it’s easy to make them safe against jobsite hazards or cushion against damage that people take when operating certain equipment.
We already see stuff like this sneaking in to let folks run jackhammers, cushioning them against vibration to let them operate more safely and efficiently. Such augmentation need not just be physical and external like an exoskeleton, and is another factor to consider. We often talk about cybernetics, transhumanism, and boosting the mind, and I would guess we’d see such enhancements being widely available before human-plus AI was available as folks are likely to feel more comfortable with augmented humans than artificial intelligence.
Plus, it’s easier to argue for laws banning AI than one that prevents someone modifying themselves, a lot of our ethics revolve around people being able to do what they want to their own body whether we like it or not, hence you rarely see bans on stuff like tattoos or body piercing. If you can augment people, that replaces some of the need for robots.
More to the point though, it creates a new industry. You drive around the US and you are going to see plenty of tattoo parlors or places that do body piercing, and you are likely to see the same for augmentation. Indeed, I wouldn’t be surprised if a lot of those parlors started doing the lower level and simpler augmentation, like inserting a chip that kept your banking data and codes, or the small microphone and earphone and antenna in your jaw and ear that replaces your cellphone. Indeed, since such places generally already need to have that basic medical knowledge and sterile environment, I could see that becoming a normal thing.
Joe’s parlor does tattoos, including cool electronic ones that are animated, and body piercings, and he can also stick in a new synthetic cornea or smart contact lens on your eye that will let you watch TV in a heads up display, or let you use augmented reality. That will be another common feature of jobs too, Augmented Reality. It lets you do your work easier but it also lets you do a job that might otherwise require more skills or experience because you can see everything right there in front of you, directly overlaid on reality.
As a result, something we’d expect in the future is a lot of generalists who are the local repairmen. Tim’s not actually an expert on refrigerators but he only lives five minutes away and is used to talking to experts on this or that appliance and has a good basic skillset, so he can pull up an augmented reality diagram right on top of the real object, and if he needs to he can phone up the actual technicians who made the device and they have it right there in front of them to advise.
Tim isn’t an expert on it, but he has the basic general skillset so they can interface very quickly to find and implement the needed repair. Indeed, they might be able to fabricate any broken parts on-site or nearby with a 3D printer. He could also download plans, schematics, and walkthroughs for the repair he needs to make into an augmented reality heads-up display, like Google Glass, which could overlay the needed troubleshooting and repair steps over the thing he’s working on.
So we see a need for specialists, but also for folks who might be the jack of all trades, just familiar enough with a general area that they can interface easily with experts of sub-fields of that area. It’s also quite possible they could control his body to just implement the repair, or even your body. Sounds a little scary, but if you are wired up so that someone can see through your eyes and use your hands, your call to customer service is going to be a lot faster, and they’re not reading your brain or anything, they can just pilot your body, you can always whack the disconnect button in your brain if you don’t like what they’re doing. Why have robots or androids around to pilot when they can just grab you for a few minutes instead, and you can watch everything they’re doing.
That makes for two interesting new jobs options. First, you have all sort of specialists trained to do that, so when you call 911 because your spouse just had a heart attack they can apply direct medical help, with your permission and with you fully aware of what they’re doing, instead of trying to get a panicked person to describe what’s going on to them, and then try to get that same panicked person to follow instructions on performing some life-saving procedure. Heck, you could use that for a lot of things, you might have whole companies who just keep experts on hand to ride inside you like a ghost when you call.
Getting mugged? You trip the panic button in your mind and suddenly some elite martial artist is in your body beating the snot out of your assailant while reinforcements close in. Air conditioner broken? You scan the product code and a repairman is now in you assessing the situation and determining what and how to fix it. Can’t figure out where to hang a painting? Interior designer pops in and you chat about it. Some folks might find that uncomfortable and presumably a blank-slate android in your house or neighborhood might do, or someone who lives nearby and happens to be fine with being piloted. That’s our second job there, folks who basically just provide a body.
This isn’t body-snatching either, they’re aware of everything the whole time, and that might be a fun job. This morning you were a substitute science teacher, in the afternoon you were a landscaper, that evening you’ll be taking someone on a tour of the town, as they just ghost onto you and you can chat to them about the fun places to see. It doesn’t take much skill either, though I could easily imagine resumes for folks in that sort of job including things like knowing an area well or being physically fit or having a good voice or being attractive.
I imagine it would have a better title, like Proxy, but you’re basically signing up to be a sock puppet, and I imagine there’d be less admirable uses of services like that, including ones that dumped your awareness into a virtual waiting room so that you didn’t know what they were up to. That might be for rather adult stuff, but it might just be a businessman wanting to do private negotiations face to face or anonymously. Much of this could of course be done with androids, and doesn’t raise the worries about AI, it’s just a robot someone pilots that happens to be humanoid.
Piloting robots will also be a big one in the future, humanoid or not, and lets us working places we don’t want people in, like deep mines, hazardous environments, or on the Moon. It might be a lot more fun to physically work on the Moon than pilot a robot there, but it’s a lot cheaper and safer, and someone else can run that robot while you are sleeping, and as an upside, you can work from home. That’s something people have predicting for a long time, that more of us will work from home, and I hear people say that hasn’t materialized yet. But in truth it has, it’s just early days.
A 2016 survey by Gallup reported that 43% of employed respondents said they did at least some of their work remotely, and around a third did most of their work that way. I do, certainly, and I definitely prefer it, and while it doesn’t work yet for everything, the major bottlenecks are essentially if the job can be performed off site, if doing so saves money, and if it reasonably permits performance monitoring by whoever employs you. And of course if the person likes doing it, remote work is not synonymous with working from home, and of course some people very much do not want to be at home. Either because they find being home all day irritating, or they have problems separating work from free time and family time.
Our goal, obviously, with any given job, is to find a way to allow that for those who want to do that. Not to force those who don’t to do so. Personally, I enjoy it, and I think it will be a lot more common in the future. This saves on resources and time lost to commuting and renting an office space. It also possibly represents a return to cottage industry, as we get more versatile with small-scale manufacturing. You obviously can’t cram a car factory into someone’s house and anything being bulk-produced is likely to have the same problems, but for many things, we don’t really want bulk production anyway.
An example of something folks often find neat when stepping into a Walmart or other warehouse store for the first time, if they’re from a place where those aren’t common, is the sheer variety of options. It’s not just that you can buy a box of cereal at 3 in the morning, without fear of the store being closed or out of cereal, it’s that you have 100 different types of cereal to choose from.
That’s also what makes online shopping, like Amazon, so neat, you have a million different things to pick from. And when you have more resources, you’re not cash-strapped, being able to pick from a hundred different brands of cornflakes that each cost $5 bucks a piece is preferable to only having a couple of options that only cost $4. This is what wars with Economy of Scale, it’s cheaper per item to mass manufacture a million of the same object then to make a thousand items of a thousand different variants, but when cost is less of a concern, people prefer the variety.
So in that regard cottage industry could return, especially as we get better at small scale production, quality assurance, and distribution. I might be biased on the notion though, I think people are happier and more productive, on average, when they are their own boss doing something they like, so I tend to like to see the future as one where that’s where things have headed. And the more prosperous a society is, the more funds it has for handmade or unique or vintage goods, and the less someone needs to earn to survive, so if someone just wants to make retro maps or vintage leather bound books, there’s a market for that and they can support themselves making those. And there’s always work to be done, because we’ll always find something to do.
If you’ve got all your basic needs covered you start branching out, and suddenly there’s job working on some island or space station making dinosaurs or resurrecting wooly Mammoths or building giant colony ships or signing on to be a colonist. If you have good enough AI, this paradigm can be broken, and we discussed that more in our Post-Scarcity Civilization article on Purpose, but that’s a long time off if ever, and I think concerns about robots replacing us, at least for now, is no more a real concern than it was when we started building powered looms or farm tractors or replaced switchboard operators with computers. One theme we can’t avoid though is that it is better to have a lot of skills than not, and while being an expert at something is good, versatility by having a lot of skills is maybe better, and this is likely only going to grow in the future.
To paraphrase Robert Heinlein “A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, design a building, balance accounts, set a bone, take orders, give orders, analyze new problem, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, and die gallantly. Specialization is for insects. “The very nature of this show means I can take for granted that my audience tends to be folks who know all too well how handy having a lot skills and knowledge is, this just isn’t the sort of show someone watches if they aren’t very into learning for its own sake. So we know its upsides, not just for a good career or a sense of purpose and personal value, but for that confidence that comes from being able to meet any problem with a large arsenal of skills and experience.
Okay, next week we’ll be publishing articles about the Upward Bound series to discuss one job we might see in the future, which is space farming, as we examine how we might be able to grow crops off of Earth, be it in space stations or alien worlds, and if it could ever be economically feasible to grow our food up in space for people down here on Earth.
The week after that we’ll be returning to the Alien Civilizations series for a look at Parasitic Aliens, and our Book of the Month, John Campbell’s “Who Goes There?”, the novella that inspired many books and films, like John Carpenter’s 1982 film, “The Thing”. For alerts when those and other articles come out, make sure to subscribe to our YouTube channel. And if you enjoyed this article, please write down a comment, and share it with others. Until next time, thanks for reading, and have a great day!