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Can an algorithm do your job?

The world we live in is increasingly being run by algorithms, but could they ever be intelligent?  Could robots and computers ever be sentient?  We live in a world where scientific and technological advancements are accelerating at an exponential rate. We have already developed complex software that designs better and more efficient software. Robots are building other robots. Nurse robots are becoming more and more ubiquitous in Japan. Other countries are catching up too. Algorithms have already taken over Wall Street. The algorithms own the market now. Complex algorithms run most of the financial transactions in stock exchanges like the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE), NASDAQ, Dow Jones, the London Stock Exchange, etc. Yet, on May 6, 2010, almost $1 trillion vanished from the U.S stocks in a matter of minutes. Apparently, the algorithms responsible for selling and buying stocks had gone berserk. Breakthroughs in computer technology, artificial intelligence and machine learning are paving the way for an increasingly automated world. Take the car industry, for example. In the early 2000’s, many experts believed that driving a car is complicated enough; automating it would mean crossing the borders of sanity. Hence, it was written off as impractical. A pipe dream, if you will. Enter Google self-driving cars. The ambitious project, first conceived around 2008 has now become a reality. Google self-driving cars have taken the roads of Mountain View, California and also the public roads in Austin, Texas. For the record, Google self-driving cars have logged more than 1.9 million miles. Google’s self-driving car’s fleet has been involved in 14 accidents since 2009, but in no occasion has the self-driving car been at fault. It goes without saying that self-driving cars can reduce road traffic fatalities. Does that mean we will live in an accident-free world? Probably not. After all, algorithms are human creations. We are error-prone. That’s human nature. The good news is, we can learn from errors. However, the bad news is that many people might be replaced. For example, taxi and truck drivers could lose their jobs. And if you fall under these two categories, don’t be surprised to see driverless cars tooling around your neighborhood in the near future.

It all boils down to the question: will a robot or a computer come for your job? Well, it all depends on the industry you’re in. Jobs such as telemarketing, accounting, data entry, watch repairing or insurance underwriting are more likely to be automated in the coming years. The music industry is already employing algorithms to find new artists, or find songs that appeal to a certain audience. If you’re in the music scouting industry, you might start to brush up your skills. Else, some algorithms might replace you before you know it. Bar and restaurant servers are also susceptible to automation. Whoever has ever worked in a bar or restaurant knows how important small talk really is. Robots would probably suck at lighting up a client’s mood. Note, however, that some clients don’t want to be bothered at all. In that case, a robot could just serve without going through the hassle of finding an appropriate joke. Cashiers, library technicians, cargo and freight agents and tax preparers risk losing their jobs to automation. Robots that employ smart algorithms could go through thousands of orders sales, inventories, numbers, files or dictionaries tirelessly, without reporting headaches or fatigue. They would ‘complain’ about low battery, though. Other than that, they would run just fine.

Automation is nothing new.  Beginning in the late 18th century, the First Industrial Revolution brought about major changes in manufacturing. Thousands of then skilled workers lost their jobs. The same could happen to millions of workers today. Remember, however, that new types of jobs might be created. Developers and engineers run the lowest risk of being replaced by some uber-smart algorithms. Psychologists, therapists, social workers and those who work in fields that require close human interaction are less likely to be replaced by robots.

We don’t know for sure if algorithms are going to replace us out our jobs. What we can do, however, is to make sure that none us is caught unprepared. Because, at the end of the day, we humans hold the key to the future. There’s a fine line between destruction and prosperity. How about starting to build algorithms that enhance humanity? It’s all up to us.