As AI improves, will my degree eventually become worthless?

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There are lots to consider when deciding which course to take. Enjoyment of the subject is key. How much money to be earned is also important. The difficulty of the degree as well as its cost has a large influence.

Yet there is an additional point that is perhaps not considered by students as much as it should: will the potential job being trained for still exist by the time of graduation?

As society grows, certain cultural elements become successful and the nature of human development is that those products and ideas become the focus of others for improvement. For example, the success of the iPhone has meant a lot of research and development into mobile phone technology.

The downside is that those elements on which these new ideas are based on become forgotten and lost. Which companies are putting effort into home phones now? Or calculators? Watches have had to be reinvented and photo and video companies are starting to die out, all as a consequence of the iPhone and its competitors.

Now generally this will be considered evolution, or at least improvement, which is correct. Ideas that no longer serve their required purpose deserve to die out.

But what happens when companies find something more useful than human workers?

For good or for bad, it is already happening. Lots of jobs are now held by robots or pieces of artificial intelligence. This process of replacement is called automation.

It should not come as a surprise: the industrial revolution was partly based on the ability to produce more for less by replacing, say, weavers (who made cloth) with cotton mills. Although the initial cost would be large, cotton mills take far fewer people to run, can produce more and mills do not complain about holiday time.

Automation has already all but ended industries such as telephone switching, glass blowing and chemical production. It is also used extensively in most manufacturing and assembly processes, such as electricity generation, oil refining, plastics, car assembly, food processing, paper production and many more, taking jobs away from people who often would know no other way to make a living.

As the potential and pervasiveness of the internet and technology at large grows (it is not unlikely that in the future they will refer to our time as the Technology Revolution, or the Computer Age), automation is increasingly taking the place of all sorts of modern roles.

Restaurants and supermarkets now allow touch screen ordering and payment, meaning there’s no need for a cashier. Online shopping has reduced the need for there to be physical stores with job losses in delivery, sales and management. Driverless cars now mean taxi drivers or truck drivers are not likely to have a job for too much longer.

And this is just the beginning.

Robot advisors are predicted to replace investors and hedge-fund managers; they can read the likelihoods of potential investments in an instant, whereas it can take a person years of experience and days, if not months of hard work. Hospitals may make use of robots to carry out surgeries, reducing the potential for error. Farms can use data and AI to optimize crop output, with robots taking care of the ploughing, seeding and animal husbandry. Current reports estimate that around half of the jobs undertaken currently have the potential to be automated by 2035.

It should be a cause for celebration!

We will have more free time for creative tasks and it should mean that the energy currently taken up by these occupations can be reinvested: new industries will grow and humanity as a whole will benefit from it.

When the ATM was invented, bankers suddenly had a lot less to do. Since fewer people were going into the banks to withdraw money, this allowed bankers more time to engage in higher-value services, such as insurance, mortgages and stock trading. The ATM also opened the door for telephone and online banking. In this sense, automation enabled the explosive growth of retail finance during the last decades of the 20th century as well as the potential for online shopping that continues today.

However, there will undoubtedly be a period of readjustment. This is unavoidable. Societal development can be a slow process and people need continual employment to support them through the changes. During this current and forthcoming revolution, it would be best to make sure your degree and eventual job choice steers clear of those industries that will be most affected.

Jobs involving simple, repetitive tasks are the easiest to automate, such as: transportation, vehicle repair, food services, retail, manufacturing, construction, real estate and office administration.

On the other hand, jobs that are most difficult to automate are those that involve managing others, ones in which decision-making, planning or creativity are required, or interacting with customers, suppliers and stakeholders.

Health workers, teachers, human resources professionals, social carers, lawyers, politicians, media professionals, content providers and help desk workers are safe. Essentially, any role that requires creativity, especially when communicating with another person, or aiding them in some way, are very difficult to (currently) automate.

So if you are looking for a course to begin your career, or indeed have recently graduated and are searching for what to do next: try and find a role that is in some way creative and avoid roles that are repetitive or simplistic.

But what if you have already decided which job to take and it is one that could potentially be automated? Then there is some good news. Only about 5% of occupations can currently be fully automated. However, 45% of the activities performed by people can be taken by AI.

So jobs will become smaller, with less to do. This then means that jobs are likely to become more integrated in the future, requiring new skills to be learned. Perhaps the simplest thing to do would be to just get a job managing automation?