As we are entering the third Industrial Revolution, more and more of our jobs will be replaced by robots and algorithms. Some estimates claim that 5 million jobs or more will be lost to machines by 2020.
And it’s not science fiction or paranoia; as advances in big data, deep learning, robotics, and artificial intelligence increase exponentially, so does the number and variety of jobs that machines will be able to do — not just well, but better.
So how do you know if your job is one of the ones at risk? One way to think about your job and how vulnerable it is is to distinguish between Algorithmic and Heuristic work.
An algorithm is defined as “a self-contained step-by-step set of operations to be performed.” We tend to think of algorithms in terms of math and computers, but they can be done by people as well.
With the advent of the factory and assembly line, algorithmic work became the norm during the Industrial Revolution. Instead of a single person producing an entire chair, the work was pieced out to different workers making the same piece over and over again. This worker turns the legs while that one weaves the cane for the seat, and this third one assembles the back…
This process of breaking work down into its component parts was revolutionary for its time. It turned the process of creating a product from an artisanal one into an algorithmic one.
The problem with algorithmic work is that it can be done by anyone — or any thing. As robots and computers become more agile and dexterous, the limitations of what a machine can accomplish compared to a human shrinks. In fact, when the goal is standardization and speed, often a robot is the better choice compared with the human.
We’ve seen this happen in the past: elevator operators and switchboard operators become obsolete, assembly line workers replaced with robots. But in the very near future, it will extend to all sorts of rote work including certain customer service and technical support jobs (answering the same questions again and again), delivery drivers, data entry, file clerks, etc.
If your job currently requires that you perform the same set of tasks, step-by-step, over and over again, your work is algorithmic, and therefore at risk of being outsourced to a machine.
On the other hand, something that is heuristic requires trial and error, cleverness, insight, application of inductive reasoning, and so on. It’s not guaranteed to get the same result (or, indeed, any result) time and time again.
These are the sorts of jobs that require creativity, empathy and insight. Think of a brilliant trial lawyer arguing a case, an investigative journalist, a scientific researcher, a coach, or a consultant.
These jobs also tend to be more abstract. You never know exactly what problem you’ll be tackling on any given day, or perhaps the parameters for success are constantly changing. A teacher falls into this category, because while a computer can deliver a lesson, a teacher has to have creativity and insight to understand what individual children need to succeed. Their metric for success will change not just daily, but with each child as well, depending on what each child needs that day for that lesson.
Heuristic work requires a human touch. So far, at least, computers are incapable of replacing this kind of important creativity and emotional connection and therefore will be unlikely to replace these workers any time soon.
Where does your job fall?
For many people, a job or career won’t be entirely algorithmic or heuristic. Instead, jobs fall on more of a spectrum with algorithmic tasks at one end and heuristic at the other. The key to knowing whether or not your job is at risk is to determine which end of the spectrum you are on.