78 skills that will be difficult to automate

By: Thomas Frey Friday May 5, 2017 1 comments Tags: Thomas Frey, robots, artificial intelligence

By Thomas Frey

Senior Futurist

DaVinci Institute

Recently my wife, Deb, and I were eating at a local sushi restaurant, watching the itamae (sushi chefs) carefully preparing each meal.

In Japan, becoming an itamae of sushi requires years of on-the-job training and apprenticeship.Thomas_Frey_blog_photoUSE_1

For this reason, I asked Deb if she would prefer eating sushi that was prepared by humans or the same kind of meals prepared by machines. After thinking about it for a bit, she said that she’d prefer having a human chef because she liked the inconsistencies that go along with having a person at the cutting board.

For her, machines meant perfect consistency and perfectly prepared meals and that was less appealing than a human-centric operation with randomness added to the equation.

The key point here is that when it comes to automation, the marketplace will decide, and the market is not always logical.

  • We still go to concerts even though listening to prerecorded music at home is safer, more comfortable, and oftentimes better quality.
  • We still go to museums even though we can witness most of the images online without having to wait in lines and fight crowds.
  • We still go to coffee shops even though we can brew the same kind of coffee at home for far less money.

In each of these cases, the value of the experience far outweighs the incongruity of decisions being made.

Simply put, we live in a human-based economy, and humans are not always logical.

What role will robots play in your future?

If a robot tells you you’re beautiful, will that ever mean as much as when your boyfriend or girlfriend says it?

It’s easy to start listing all the so-called inferior traits that people have. Robots don’t sweat, complain, have to urinate, take breaks, get angry, or make mistakes.

We generally don’t design machines to be cruel, insulting, lazy, vindictive, violent, irrational, clumsy, greedy, envious, hotheaded, power-hungry, selfish, shy, tactless, superficial, or stupid.

However, humans come with a number of positive characteristics to offset all the negative ones. We can also be friendly, helpful, charming, warmhearted, risk-taking, courageous, empathetic, inspiring, bold, brilliant, resourceful, benevolent, gracious, humble, and forgiving.

When it comes to designing machines to replace humans, we often forget how enormously complex we are.

We have a need to compete, a need to belong, a sense of purpose, we crave attention, love, sex, importance, and the human touch. We must never underestimate the power of the human touch.

Yes, we are all flawed individuals, and as such, we have a number of basic needs.

We need things like water, food, shelter, clothing, safety, and security. Once those needs are met, a number of other needs kick in like our need for belonging, companionship, love, intimacy, and family.

As our lower level needs are met, we move up Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs to things like self-respect, self-esteem, status, fame, recognition, power and freedom.

While on the surface we come across as incomplete beings, lacking in so many areas, the reality is that our needs are what drives our economy.

Every human deficiency creates a new market

Grocery stores wouldn’t exist if we didn’t need food. The housing industry wouldn’t exist if we didn’t need shelter and safety. The automobile industry wouldn’t exist without our need for power, status and freedom.

Ironically, the reason robots exist is to support our basic human needs.

Robots, on the other hand, do not have the same kind of needs.

Will we buy music that’s generated by machines or music produced by humans?

Will we buy machine-made art, watch a robo-ballet, attend a car race with only driverless cars, or sit in a stadium to watch robo-athletes?

In virtually all of these cases, we’ll choose to do both. Certainly, we will mostly choose one over the other, but we’ll buy human art along with robo-art. We’ll attend a human-run restaurant one day and a robo-restaurant the next. We’ll cheer on our favorite human team with one set of friends and cheer on our favorite robo-athletes with another.

We will also love some robots and hate others.

We don’t live in an “either-or” world. Rather, our human culture has grown up around a more inclusive “both-and” economy.

Yes, these new options will compete with each other, causing fewer restaurant workers per restaurant, and fewer artists and musicians to fill today’s demands. However, as demand increases, we may actually have more people working in these fields.

Our struggle will be to find the optimal balance. The best restaurant owners will use robots to gain efficiency; the best artists will use robots to produce far more art; and the best musicians and athletes to play with robots instead of play against them.

Tasks and skills that will be difficult to automate

When we factor all of this thinking into a few practical guidelines, the safest jobs will form around:

  • Complex systems too expensive to automate
  • Creative endeavors that only humans can appreciate
  • Human-to-human interactions that produce an emotional response
  • Decisions that need human-based reasoning
  • Complicated outputs that demand a human translator
  • Situations that require the human touch
  • Settings where the loyalty of hacker-proof humans is preferable over digital machines
  • Human-to-human valuations
  • Positions where humans control robots
  • Human-to-human competition

As I step through this list, please understand that I’m talking about things that will be “difficult” to automate, but probably not impossible.

Once again, it boils down to this question: Given a choice, will people prefer food that is made by humans or food that is made by machines?

Complex systems too expensive to automate

While there may be no such thing as a “complex system too expensive to automate,” the more complex the system, the more humans will be involved to oversee potential breaking points:

  1. Space launches
  2. Asteroid mining
  3. Nanotech research
  4. Deep ocean research
  5. Demographic studies
  6. Linguistics analysis
  7. Material science
  8. Failure analysis

Creative endeavors that only humans can appreciate

We have a great love for what creative people produce. Invariably we will use machines to help in these endeavors, but there will always be people directing the effort:

  1. Artistic performances – painting, sculpting, dance, and design
  2. Musical performances
  3. Poetry
  4. Fashion designers
  5. Interior designers
  6. Industrial designers
  7. Beauty parlors
  8. Reputation designers and managers

Human-to-human interactions that produce an emotional response

These may seem like tiny pieces of humanity, but the value of these nuanced interfaces play an extraordinary role in our relational experiences:

  1. An encouraging smile
  2. A persuasive argument
  3. A personal handshake
  4. A hug
  5. A romantic kiss
  6. A convincing sales pitch
  7. A massage
  8. Multiple facets of sexual relations and procreation

Decisions that need human-based reasoning

As our capabilities grow, we will see an ever-increasing need for ethical oversight. Our ability to destroy things will soon exceed our ability to create things, and we’ll need ever-vigilant watchdogs to protect humanity:

  1. Creation of new laws, policies, and regulation
  2. Government oversight
  3. Basic troubleshooting
  4. Business planning
  5. Marketing strategies
  6. Managing animal shelters
  7. Child care workers
  8. Basic and advanced problem-solving

Complicated outputs that demand a human overseer or translator

As the number of sensors increase and the amount of data we’ll be dealing with on a daily basis exceeds human ability to comprehend, we’ll begin to automate the analysis. However, there will still be a need for human oversight to manage all the exceptions and edge cases:

  1. Doctors and medical diagnosis
  2. Data analytics
  3. Judges and legal systems
  4. Business executives
  5. Privacy advocates and experts
  6. Relationship building strategies
  7. Birthing processes
  8. Genealogical mapping

Situations that require the human touch

Humans are social creatures by nature, and strong social bonds invariably require human touch:

  1. Teaching someone to sing, dance, or juggle
  2. Teaching someone how to gracefully enter a room
  3. Teaching someone how to win a debate
  4. Teaching someone why it’s important to take a bath
  5. Teaching someone to do gymnastics
  6. Teaching someone to make a reasonable decision
  7. Teaching someone the value of human life

Settings where the loyalty of hacker-proof humans is preferable over digital machines

Fallible humans may not seem like the strongest link in a secure system but in many cases they become a crucial disconnected node in an otherwise hackable digital structure:

  1. Guarding the President (or other important people)
  2. Holding a secret
  3. Personal confidant
  4. Safeguarding corporate knowledge
  5. Robot displacement specialists
  6. Robot consultants
  7. Robot lobbyists
  8. Leaders of robot resistance groups

Human-to-human valuations

Since robots do not value objects the ways humans do, or make decisions about what constitutes a fair price on a product, the need for human value judgments will continue to be important:

  1. Buying stocks or commodities
  2. Voting
  3. Government policy decisions
  4. Decisions to act on a policy violation
  5. Buyers
  6. Purchasing agents
  7. Product and service ratings
  8. Surveys and polls

Positions where humans control robots

There are many positions where people will use robots as tools and evolve along with their industries, growing with each new productivity advancement:

  1. Business owners and managers
  2. Software designers and coders
  3. System engineers
  4. Product designers
  5. Robot maintenance and repair
  6. Robot configuration specialists
  7. Robot test technicians
  8. Auctioneer that specializes in selling robots

Human to human competition

We’re much more interested in our standing among other humans over how we compare to robots:

  1. Popular sports (i.e. football, basketball, soccer)
  2. Olympics and Paralympics
  3. Popularity competitions (i.e. beauty pageants, elections, etc.)
  4. Loyalty programs
  5. X-Prize competitions
  6. Startup funding pitches
  7. Conflict resolution 

Final Thoughts

One of my readers, BJ Brown, recently passed along the following story:

When I was in northwestern Canada in the 70’s I asked one of the locals why they still used dogs instead of snowmobiles. He replied, “When I’m out in bad conditions, the dogs have as much stake in getting home as I do. The snowmobile doesn’t care.”

Will robots ever truly care?

Contrary to popular belief, most robot and AI systems currently act as a complement to humans rather than a replacement them.

According to most experts, we are still years away from general artificial intelligence and full automation. But eventually there will come a day where robots will perform most tasks and the role of humans in the production cycle will become marginalized.

My goal in writing this was not to develop an exhaustive list of “safe jobs,” but rather to create tools for thinking about the human role in our future.

Robots are coming. They’re coming with or without our blessing and in shapes and forms we can’t even imagine.

But they also come with limits, limits that we will soon discover along the way.

Thomas Frey

About the Author: Thomas Frey

Thomas Frey is a senior futurist and founder of The DaVinci Institute, a nonprofit think tank in Westminster. He is a well-known speaker on a variety of unique and thought-provoking topics and editor of The Futurist Magazine and blogger for FuturistSpeaker.com.


Thanks Thomas, Certainly all good points to consider. There is a lot of trepidation about robots replacing people where leaders make the decision purely on a cost basis, such as in McDonalds in China eliminating 50,000 jobs. As I work on organizational environments, I see tasks that take too long that robots can contribute greater agility to, which flies well with your comments that robots are best as enabling humans. At large most change is driven by humanity and values so I hope leaders start applying more conscious leadership and open cultures. When they don't the failure rate is high. Best, Bill.

- Bill Van Eron