When automated factories started erasing jobs at manufacturing companies, most of us shrugged: Great, better products cheaper, was the general line of thinking
But as automation keeps creeping up the stack, taking over more of what most would call "skilled" positions, well that's getting some folks—who consider themselves skilled professionals—nervous.
Take airplane pilots for example. That's now a dead-end job according to Mary "Missy" Cummings, director of the Humans and Autonomy Lab (HAL) at Duke University (and a former Naval fighter pilot.) She said that "in all honesty" she could not recommend that anyone become a commercial airline pilot going forward, given the current state of the art.
"Commercial pilots today touch the stick for three to seven minutes per flight—and that's on a tough day," she told an audience at the MIT CIO Symposium on Wednesday.
So, the gist: if you like to fly, make enough money in some other career so you can pursue it as a hobby. The broader problem, Cummings noted, is that humans tend to get jaded when they're not doing useful things. And that is bad, even dangerous.
"Boredom sets in when you babysit automated systems and if you think this is a problem in aviation, just wait till driverless cars come around," Cummings said.
Complacent people still have an expectation that if and when something goes wrong at the wheel or the joystick—which it will—a human will intervene at the right time. Which won't happen, she said.
But it's not just pilots and drivers who are endangered species. Journalists are also on the block. Automated Insights has programmed the creation of earnings stories and sports stories that show up in news papers around the world. The company's computers churn out 3,000 earnings stories per quarter for the Associated Press at an average cost of less than $8 per story.
"The AP did 300 earnings stories per quarter, now they do 3,000," said Robbie Allen, founder and CEO of the Durham, N.C.-based company, which was purchased in February by Stats.
Allen stressed, perhaps sensing reporters in the room, that his service augments rather than replaces, reporters' work. Publications still want to cover Google (goog) and Apple (aapl) earnings so maybe they'll use Automated Insights story as a template, a starting point, and add their own expertise, he said.
The company's goal is not to create one story for a million people but a million specialized stories for one person each —all driven by data. The ultimate goal is complete personalization. One of the company's early projects was to take fantasy football data and to create personal stories based on that data for those stats-crazed team managers.
"I once asked how many reporters would be interested in writing a million fantasy football stories. And I got no takers," he said.
Coincidentally, NPR ran a story Wednesday morning pitting veteran reporter Scott Horsley against an Automated Insights' WordSmith program to write an earnings report. It took Horsley about 7 minutes and Automated Insights two minutes. And I'll bet Horsley makes more than $8 for that effort. Yikes.
Professor Tomaso Poggio of MIT's Center of Biological and Computational Learning ranked people who are most at risk for professional obsolescence.
Those at what he called the highest level of skill—the engineers and scientists who actually build and fix stuff— and those at the lowest level— plumbers who also actually build and fix stuff—will be safe. It's those in the middle, the lawyers, financial advisors etc. who are at risk.
"The middle jobs will disappear," he said.
So what should individual humans do to protect themselves from professional dead ends? Unsurprisingly, all four panelist at this session, recommended programming skills. The thinking likely being that the robot cannot become your overlord if you're the one programming the robot.
But getting back to the NPR story on Automated Insights: For what it's worth, Horsley's story was much better.