How to make sure you’re not replaced by a robot


AI robots are now assembling cars, writing news articles, detecting fraud, checking you out as you leave retail stores, and replying to customer service inquiries. In the future they may be driving trucks or writing code.

Will your job be replaced by a robot?

Almost certainly it will. I don’t care what you are doing — whether you’re digging ditches, routing airplanes, designing products, or writing fiction — elements of your job are on their way to automation.

My personal history

I started my work writing software manuals. That’s pretty much obsolete now, software became too easy to use and nobody reads manuals.

As my career grew, I managed departments that did bug-finding and technical support for software companies. Both of those tasks are now mostly automated.

At a publishing startup, I managed the group that did page layout and design. What used to take them weeks now happens in a few hours if you use Adobe InDesign.

I was a technology analyst. Analysts needed to stay on the cutting edge of new technology to provide recommendations for business. That job is still necessary, but elements of it — analysis of sentiment about new products, for example, and forecasting — are now integrated with automated systems.

I was a “knowledge worker.” If you are reading this, you probably are, too. And whatever it is that you do, whether it’s marketing, human resources, accounting, or product development — automation is going to change it.

What should you do?

In Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Charlie’s father loses his job putting caps on toothpaste tubes. But he gets a new job maintaining the machine that replaced him.

Railing against automation is futile. You can’t stop it. You can only prepare for it.

My advice is simple. Keep moving. Which direction is up to you. Just don’t stand still.

For example:

  • Develop a broader perspective. Learn about your field and the changes that are coming, especially changes wrought by automation. Automation always creates new niches for people who understand how the automation itself works. There are fewer of those jobs, but there are also fewer people who know how to do them, and they pay better. (For example, factories now are full of fewer, more skilled people who understand how robotic factories work.)
  • Focus on the human. Robots are bad at empathy, and will likely always be bad at it. That means that if you put in a robotic system to deliver service, it’s going to solve 95% of the problems more cheaply, and leave 5% of the customers fuming. The people who can help those 5% will be in demand. And it’s not just service. In any helping profession — teaching, nursing, hospitality — there will always be jobs for people who can do the emotional labor of helping.
  • Make better automation. I’m continually surprised at how bad automated systems are. Consider the sorry state of automated math teaching, for example. To design intelligent automation, you must understand the customers, the task to be done, and the capabilities of the automation system. The best people who were doing the job before automation know the first two parts of that equation well. We need them to learn how to design automated systems (or, work with the designers) that are automating the job they’re doing now.
  • Cross disciplines. If you’re in marketing, learn about sales. If you’re a coder, learn about design. If you’re a public speaker, learn about the metaverse. Robots aren’t particularly effective at mixing disciplines — they tend to specialize. So cross-disciplinary knowledge and jobs are going to be more automation-resistant.
  • Tell stories. Storytelling is now at the center of all kinds of media, from podcasting to journalism to streaming media. And media is exploding. Robots may write stories about why the stock market dropped, but they don’t know how to create a compelling narrative about a CEO’s meltdown or all sides of the causes of inflation. If you learn to tell stories, you’ll be an asset in any number of careers — and you’ll be better prepared to switch if you need to.

If you’re good at something and are happy just doing it over and over again, you’re out of luck. Sooner or later, your job is going to be automated.

Learn. Or be roadkill. Your choice.

4 responses to “How to make sure you’re not replaced by a robot

  1. Sad, but true.
    All my life, I’ve been a writer or editor of one sort or another. Now, in the final chapter of my working life, I’m writing software user guides. One day, my current job will automated.
    But my favorite job, science writing, will not. Because science writing tells compelling stories. Stories about human curiosity, human challenges, and human creativity. And it does so using analogies, similes, and metaphors that reflect how humans think and feel. T
    Meanwhile, almost every professional I know believes that their job can’t be automated. Even my financial advisor! I’m sure that personal tax accountants once believed that, too. Now, everyone I know does their own taxes, using software as a service (SaaS) like TurboTax or H&R Block.
    When my daughter was in medical school, I advised her to choose a specialty that would be difficult to automate. Radiologists will be the first to be automated. Other diagnosticians will be the next.
    My daughter became an obstetrician.

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