Friday, April 21, 2017

Is Your Job Robot-Proof?

It doesn’t take much observation of the typical high school curriculum to see that most of what is being taught is a vestige of a long past era. Geometry was essential to the ancient Egyptians, but not to modern Americans. Spelling, handwriting, and even writing itself have little to do with contemporary communication. My wife can’t understand why I still type instant messages instead of speak them into my smart phone.

The future is robots and artificial intelligence. Profit-seeking individuals and corporations demand it. Ford motor company recently ear-marked $1 billion for R&D on robotics, in an industry in which humans are already disappearing from the assembly line.

My father left school at age 14 and started work as an apprentice printer in 1923. He worked as a dues-paying member of the International Typographical Union for nearly 40 years. In the mid-1960s, his union struck against the introduction of computers into the composing room. He never worked another day as a printer. When he retired, the ITU’s pension fund was broke. "Printer" was the first occupation to be wiped out by computers. But it was hardly the last.

Recently, David Brancaccio and Katy Long undertook to catalogue various occupations as either 100% robot-proof (i.e., unlikely to be replaced by computers and AI) or 0% robot-proof. My father’s job was 0%, and it happened so long ago that Brancaccio and Long didn’t even bother to mention it. Here are their two lists:

    0% Automatable (Most Robot-Proof)
  • Ambulance Drivers and Attendants, Except Emergency Medical Technicians
  • Animal Scientists
  • Animal Trainers
  • Astronomers
  • Athletes and Sports Competitors
  • Clergy
  • Dancers
  • Directors, Religious Activities and Education
  • Historians
  • Mathematical Technicians
  • Models
  • Music Directors and Composers
  • Religious Workers, All Other
  • Roof Bolters, Mining
    100% Automatable (Least Robot-Proof)
  • Aircraft Cargo Handling Supervisors
  • Dredge Operators
  • Foundry Mold and Coremakers
  • Graders and Sorters, Agricultural Products
  • Logging Equipment Operators
  • Machine Feeders and Offbearers
  • Medical Appliance Technicians
  • Motion Picture Projectionists
  • Ophthalmic Laboratory Technicians
  • Packaging and Filling Machine Operators and Tenders
  • Plasterers and Stucco Masons
  • Slaughterers and Meat Packers
We can conclude a couple of things from these lists.

1) The robot-proof jobs have to do with the arts, sports, entertainment, and – shall we say – spiritual pursuits.

2) The jobs replaceable by computers, AI, and robots are the mid-level trades that employ the bulk of the nation’s workforce.

Going beyond the lists to the question of what is the role of public education in job training for the future, one can only conclude that our schools are in big trouble – and not in the way that most people think of trouble. Most of what is being taught is worthless, either for personal development or for life as a wage earner after schooling is done. Virtually all of what is tested for in the current madness of high-stakes paper-and-pencil achievement testing is irrelevant. It won’t prepare you for a job, and it won’t enrich your life for all those hours, days, weeks and years ahead when you are not working.

The transformation of work that is going on all around us is of utmost importance. It will have major implications for a topic that that absolutely paralyzing the thinking of political conservatives everywhere: entitlements. What will become of tens of millions of people who have no way to contribute to the nation’s economy? Will that tiny fraction of the population who can create real value support them, or will they look down their noses at them and ignore them? Few are willing to face the implications of a future of no work without moralizing or yearning for an atavistic era that will never return.

Is your job robot-proof? The answer for the vast majority of the U.S. workforce is regrettably, "No."

Gene V Glass
Arizona State University
University of Colorado Boulder
National Education Policy Center
San José State University

The opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not represent the official position of the National Education Policy Center, Arizona State University, University of Colorado Boulder, nor San José State University.


  1. The #1 job that attracts psychopaths is to become a CEO, and it is these psychopaths that are making the decisions to get rid of human labor and replace them with robots and automation. What happens when there are no more jobs and no more consumers for the products and services that robots and automation provide?

    I've read that about 1-percent of the planet's human population are psychopaths. Does that mean in a century or less, the earth's population will drop from 8 billion to 80 million and all that will be left of our species will be former CEOs and billionaires who are all psychopaths?

  2. Astronomers will eventually be replaced by AI. Astronomers are relying on computers for finding and analyzing more astronomical bodies in the sky. One day, all data from radio telescopes and optical scopes could be fed into a central computer for processing.

    As AI becomes more mainstream, Mathematical Technicians will also disappear. With the advent of Quantum Computers, AI will be able to sort through mathematical formulas, and develop new formulas much faster than a mathematician.

    Mining is also becoming more automated. As computers and sensors mature, it won't be long before the human hand is removed from mining.

    Just remember, NO JOB is auto-proof. AI will be able to perform more. The only thing a computer or robot cannot replace is the personal contact that humans need, though, I am sure this will eventually be emulated.