What young professionals can do to prepare for the rise of automation and AI

Credit: Kaboompics

Credit: Kaboompics

You've probably noticed the avalanche of (doomsday) articles about the imminent arrival of artificial intelligence, robots, and automation. "Our jobs are disappearing! Machines are taking over! A robot beat a human in one of the most difficult games in the world!" In 1930, the iconic economist John Maynard Keynes predicted that his grandchildren's generation, i.e. today's generation, would work only 15 hours a week due to the explosion of technological innovation [Note: Less than a year after this bold claim, the Great Depression ravaged the global economy and cause catastrophic damage to society. Must have been a little awkward for Keynes.]

Artificial intelligence is clearly the hottest talk on the block at the moment. Since there are scores of discussions on the topic from people that are light-years more intelligent than I am, I'm not going to discuss the technical angle of the issue. I'm not going to lecture you on that because so many others have done it far better than I could ever do. Instead, I'm going to look at it from a perspective that aligns with what I generally discuss on this blog: personal and character development.

My colleagues, they study artificial intelligence; me, I study natural stupidity.
— Amos Tversky

Safety First

Let’s cut to the chase then: which jobs are safest from automation? Sherry Palmer has a nice rundown about this where he lists professions like elementary school teachers, athletes, politicians, judges, and mental health professionals. This list isn’t exhaustive but is meant to underscore the common factor of the jobs that won’t be so “expendable” in the coming years: they are human professions that require very human characteristics. These jobs call for a fluid combination of intuition, critical reasoning, both objectivity and subjectivity together, and emotional intelligence. They demand a multi-dimensional combination of talents instead of just one “skill.”

This is why the jobs that are easiest to replace are exactly the ones that don’t require these characteristics. These are repetitive, tedious jobs that only challenge you in a one-dimensional way. Like Emmet from the Lego Movie, employees in these jobs are simply required to follow a rigid rulebook day in, day out until the end of time. You do as you’re told; you’re not there to be the innovative idea guy.

The goal of this post, however, is not to scare you into changing professions. I want you to know what to do within your existing profession so that you will be indispensable no matter how powerful Zee Robots become.


Instead of asking which jobs will or won’t be replaced by robots, I prefer to ask which people will be safest from the new technological age. From all that I’ve read and heard about this gripping topic in the last year or so, it seems like the answer to this is relatively simple: leaders. Just like in sports, true leaders are absolutely indispensable. I’m talking about the brightest and most enigmatic characters in whichever profession that’ you're in. People that truly inspire and captivate. People that aren’t just good at what they do, but are powerfully unique, connect the dots before they even appear, captivate their peers, and are more than just employees. The future workplace will grant increasingly greater rewards to and premiums on unique leaders. You can’t afford to be good at what you do, you have to be brilliant. You have to be the best. You need the best people skills. You can’t just be good at the one skill that your job requires, you need to add complementary skills that increase your unique value (more on this later).

I have to be good; I have to win. But I have no concerns over that. If I did, I would have gone fishing.
— Zinedine Zidane

This is why I’m writing about this topic on the blog, even though at first I thought it would be unrelated to the usual topics that I discuss. But now I see that although personal development was generally seen as a fun, extra pastime, it has now taken on a far greater importance. Constantly learning new and unique skills that will complement your abilities at work (and beyond) adds that layer of “uniqueness” to your toolbox that no robot will be able to replicate. And given the inevitable and imminent revolutionary arrival of artificial intelligence, the sooner you get started with this, the better.

The greatest mistake you can make is to think that learning ends after you graduate college.
— (I believe Joi Ito said this, sorry if I got this wrong!)

I understand that for many people artificial intelligence is a very real and scary threat to their livelihoods. I really do understand. It’s going to cause seismic shifts to the way we work and, just like with when globalization swept through the world, many people are going to be worse off. But the one unquestionable benefit that it will give us (beyond the obvious technical advantages) is how it challenges us, nay, forces us to be better, smarter, brighter, and sharper people. It forces us to be leaders. You can no longer afford to be a “yes man.” You can no longer afford to be decent or to coast in your job. You have to keep improving, socially, intellectually, and character-wise. You have to be a leader. You have to be unique.

You have to be… brilliant.


Where to start, what to do

Enough high-minded and fear-mongering words from me then, let’s talk about practical matters: what should you do after reading this? In general, there are three things you need to focus on:

General personal development: These are skills that can be carried over from job to job and industry to industry. The core focus is on improving areas like social skills, non-verbal communication, body language, productivity, motivation, and much more. I think the Art of Charm is undoubtedly the best resource for doing this as they guide you through a massive range of skills and offer phenomenal support at every step of the journey. Don’t forget that you can also just read books on the matter and/or listen to podcasts about it, although a simple Google search on any of the mentioned skills will probably be enough to set you on your way.

Job-specific development: Let’s take tech as the easy example. Learn new skills that are directly relevant to this like a new coding language, basic web design, database administration, and so on. You can also go the extra mile and get further formal education in your field (e.g. a certification or a Master’s degree), but I understand that this is very much dependent on how much time and money you have and if your employer can accommodate these plans. But if you do have the chance, definitely go for it.

To add to this, I need to stress that you absolutely must, must, MUST be up-to-date with everything going on in your industry. So sign up for the best magazines, subscribe to the best podcasts, follow the most informative tech social media feeds and make them appear first in your feed (see, that Facebook Purge was useful after all!), watch tech documentaries, go to tech meetups in your local community, read books by the most prominent thought-leaders in this field, and, finally, bring all this knowledge to the workplace.

Skills not directly related to your job (similar to skill-stacking): For example, why not learn how to be a great podcaster (recording, editing, publishing, and everything it entails), try your hand at photography, improve your public speaking skills, or use my writing guide to become a better writer? Again, use resources like Meetup to find local events with people doing the same thing so that you’re not in this alone.


Closing Words

You clearly have much to do, so I'll leave you to get to it (here's a useful article if you want to read more about this topic). In closing, here are some words of inspiration from Sherry Palmer:

If you’re wondering where your job sits on the list of “Run for your life, the robots are coming,” you have a simple, singular mission. Learn how your job is going to be automated. Learn everything you can about what your job will evolve into and become the very best man-machine partner you can. It’s the best way to prepare yourself for the advent of AI. Lastly, don’t wait. Everyone will tell you that none of this is happening anytime soon. They are flat wrong. But even if they are right, there’s no harm in being better prepared for an inevitable future.
— Sherry Palmer; The 5 Jobs Robots Will Take Last

See you, Space Cowboy.