We’re increasingly relying on artificial intelligence (AI) to automate elements of our daily lives, from issuing reminders to follow-up with important work tasks to regulating the temperature of our homes. Already, automation has started to take over jobs in the manufacturing sector, and with the explosion of AI on the near horizon, millions of people are worried their jobs, too, could be taken by a sufficiently sophisticated machine (or algorithm).
AI has innumerable benefits, namely saving time and increasing reliability and safety, but it also comes with downsides. AI could introduce new security vulnerabilities into otherwise secure systems, and realistically could replace or displace millions of white-collar jobs once thought irreplaceable.
So should you be thinking about the prospect of being replaced by an AI-driven algorithm? And if so, is there a way for you to AI-proof your career?
The High-Level View: AI Is Coming
Let’s start with a high-level assessment of the future of AI. AI is going to continue to advance, at rates that continue accelerating well into the future. In 2040, we may look back on the AI available today the same way our ubiquitous-internet-enjoying culture looks back on the internet of 1999.
Essentially, it’s conceivable that one day, far into the future, automation and AI will be capable of handling nearly any human responsibility. It’s more a question of when, not if, the AI takeover will be complete. Fortunately, by then, AI will be so embedded and so phenomenally powerful, our access to resources will be practically infinite and finding work may not be much of a problem.
But setting aside those sci-fi visions, it’s realistically safe to assume that AI will soon start bridging the gap between blue-collar and white-collar jobs. Already, automated algorithms are starting to handle responsibilities in journalism, pharmaceuticals, human resources, and law—areas once thought untouchable by AI.
In short, yes, you should be thinking about how AI will affect your career.
What AI Can’t Do Well
That said, AI isn’t a perfect tool. AI and automation are much better than humans at executing rapid-fire, predictable functions, but there are some key areas in which AI tends to struggle, including:
- Abstract brainstorming and problem solving. If the problem is straightforward and puzzle-like, AI can likely solve it much better than a human. But humans are equipped with far superior abstract thinking capabilities. We, for lack of a better term, “think outside the box,” and can apply novel ideas to various situations. Accordingly, for the foreseeable future, we’ll likely remain better artists and more innovative problem solvers.
- Human interactions. While there are some teams working on developing AI assistants (and even therapists) that can replicate basic human interactions, the fact remains people prefer to engage with other people, at least in certain industries. For example, when you’re buying a new home, you’ll want to have a real conversation with a qualified real estate agent, and when you’re struggling with a mental health issue, you’ll want to speak with a human being sitting across from you. Accordingly, jobs that are heavily dependent on human interaction will likely be protected for some time.
- Situations with many (or unpredictable) variables. AI performs best in situations with firm, unbreakable rules, and the fewer rules there are, the better. When you get into situations with an increasing number of variables, or when those variables become unpredictable, AI begins to struggle. Accordingly, the higher up the management chain you go, the less likely it is that AI will be capable of handling the responsibilities.
Replacement or Displacement?
You should also consider the question of whether AI has the potential of truly replacing your job, or simply displacing it. There are experts on both sides of the argument here, and different industries and different positions may come to different conclusions.
Fearing the rise of new technology isn’t a new concept; people have been afraid of losing their jobs to machines for hundreds of years. We often use the term “luddite” to describe someone who’s irrationally afraid of (or reluctant to use) new technology, but the term originates as a way of describing textile workers who were afraid that textile machines would make their work irrelevant. We look back on this phase of industrialization with some degree of humor. We know that most workers weren’t replaced by machines; instead, they simply began to use the machines as part of their jobs.
This could be the near future for many positions; rather than having entire positions and businesses replaced by machines, individuals and organizations will be embracing and integrating AI.
Even so, if you’re worried about the future of your career due to the pressure created by AI, there are some strategies you can adopt to AI-proof your career.
AI-Proofing: Learning to Love the Machine
One of your best options is learning to embrace AI, rather than trying to fight or avoid it. Business owners are going to be incentivized to integrate AI as much as possible in their enterprises, but they’re going to need help to do it. If you position yourself to take advantage of AI to make your own position more valuable, you’re going to strongly benefit from AI—rather than just being threatened by it.
You can put yourself in a better position by learning more about the up-and-coming AI applications in your industry, and becoming more knowledgeable about their integration. In some industries, you may even be able to learn more about developing and modifying AI systems. If you feel your job is truly under threat, you could change careers altogether, learning development and working on AI systems of your own.
AI-Proofing: Incorporating AI-Challenging Skills
You can also work to AI-proof your career by incorporating more skills into your work that are challenging for AI. There are several ways you could hypothetically do this. For starters, you could make a vertical move; advancing to more managerial and leadership positions will make it harder for AI to encroach on your territory. Supervisory and management roles require juggling many unpredictable variables, and sometimes engaging in abstract thinking. AI systems tend to struggle with these types of responsibilities.
You could also make a horizontal move, learning new skills in your current role or changing industries to a position that’s less likely to be threatened by an automated algorithm. For example, you could try to transition to a role that involves more direct human interactions, or you could go back to school to start a new career in a field that’s less likely to automated in the near future.
AI-Proofing: Diversifying Your Career
No matter how far you think ahead or how thoroughly you brainstorm, the future of AI is still somewhat unpredictable. It may encroach on far more jobs than we originally thought, or may turn out to be an entirely negligible threat. Either way, you can improve your career trajectory by diversifying your skillset, and diversifying your potential career options.
For example, you might start learning new marketable skills in many different categories—even if they don’t directly apply to your current career. You could also start taking on a small collection of different side gigs. That way, if any of your income streams or skills come under threat, you can easily transition to something else. This approach leaves you with the most flexibility.
Evidence that your job could be feasibly replaced by a sufficiently powerful AI algorithm or machine is mixed, but AI is certainly going to become more sophisticated in the future. If you’re worried about the future of your career, or if you just want to maximize your potential over the next few decades, the aforementioned strategies can all help you “AI-proof” your career, at least to the best of your ability.