A few career considerations

Computers are getting very smart, very quickly. If they can do the job you’re training for, you’d better reconsider your path.

It’s not often that I read something finance-related that blows my mind. But one such missive arrived in my inbox the other day. There was no author’s credit, so I did an Internet search of the first paragraph and found the original posting on the Facebook page of Udo Gollub.

It starts with “I just went to the Singularity University summit and here are the key learnings.” The rest is a very insightful but scary read for anyone looking for a stable job in the future.

The writer starts with an historical observation. Did you know that in 1998 Kodak had 170,000 employees and 85% of the world’s photo film and paper processing market? Within a few years its business simply disappeared and it declared bankruptcy. Think about it. In 1998 did you think that in three years you would never again take a picture on film? Where did those 170,000 people find jobs?

Gollub’s main premise is that artificial intelligence will do the same thing to many industries. In other words, computers and software will displace the need for people. It is already happening. Have you used Uber? It’s a free app on your smartphone that links you with people willing to drive you to your destination. No cash changes hands and tips are not required. Payment is processed automatically via your credit card linked to your Uber account. Uber doesn’t own any cars, and it is now the world’s largest cab company. What is that going to do to the traditional taxi industry and all its jobs?

Ever use Airbnb? Like Uber it links people looking for a place to stay with those renting out their houses and apartments. It doesn’t own any property but it has more than 1.5 million listings in 34,000 cities in 191 countries. That effectively makes it the biggest hotel chain in the world. What does that mean for the future of the millions of people working in the hotel industry?

Anyone deciding their future career should seriously think about the implications of technology on the job market. In short, computers are getting very smart, very quickly. If they can do the job you are training for, you’d better reconsider your path.

In 1997 IBM’s Deep Blue beat world chess champion Garry Kasparov. This year a computer beat the world’s best Go player (see “I Robot, CPA,” August). Go is an ancient Chinese game played on a 19 x 19 grid and the idea of a computer winning was considered unlikely for at least the next 10 years. If computers can master Go, what else can they do?

What about lawyers? Gollub says that young lawyers in the US have difficulty getting jobs because a cognitive computer program called IBM Watson can accumulate and organize basic legal information in seconds with 90% accuracy. Humans take hours to perform the same tasks with 70% accuracy. In Gollum’s opinion this means 90% fewer lawyers in the future.

What about investment advisers? Can a computer do a better job than a human? I’d argue yes, because computers have no emotions — the bane of long-term investing success. However, it doesn’t matter what you or I think — it’s happening. Robo-adviser investment companies are available in Canada.

How about transport drivers? With Tesla, Toyota, Honda, Nissan, Google and Apple investing in self-driving cars, demand for bus, truck and other drivers will decline significantly.

However, there is some good news. Computers are not good at everything. I saw a documentary, NOVA’s Rise of the Robots, about a robotics competition to see who could create the best robot to replace humans in disaster recovery operations. The top minds in organizations such as NASA and MIT were invited to see whose robot could best navigate an obstacle course and perform such simple tasks as drilling a hole in a wall. The robots had limited success — often unable to walk over some scattered blocks, for example. They were large, unwieldy and susceptible to falling over and breaking. While robots are great at repetitive tasks in a controlled environment, such as on an automobile assembly line, they can’t negotiate the physical world well.

Personally, I think this is good news for the future of some jobs. Those that require manual dexterity, the use of your hands as well as your head, won’t be displaced by a robot any time soon. Think plumber, electrician, property maintenance, construction, dentist, occupational therapist and nurse.

So, how safe is the job you plan on doing for the rest of your career?