Keeping your job during the robopocalypse will be all about personality

Scientists now know who’ll be replaced by machines and it’s surprising
(Credit: iStock/Getty Images)

Most movies about the inevitability of Artificial Intelligence depict robots working for us as we wrestle with our humanity. Or, they portray humanity enslaved (as we wrestle with robots). The most famous (and most catastrophic) of these cinematic projections depicts metallic armies marching our desiccated skulls into the dust in flawless cadence. But the reality of the immediate future, an almost certain one, is that robots will steal our livelihood well before they steal our lives.

If you're intent on clinging to your paycheck or occupying your cubicle a while longer, fellow human, take comfort. There is hope for primates yet (huzzah)! Dr Rodica Damian, assistant professor of social and personality psychology at the University of Houston has been studying which jobs the robots will take over first and what, if anything, we can do about it.

As we perfect AI (with full disregard for the creepy cost to our emotional well-being), the tasks that machines perform better than us will increase so rapidly, we won't be able to keep up with the pink slips. Big data and machine learning will give robots an incredible advantage over us making job automation no so much an if as an impending when for many. Every employee of the month pic will quietly shame humanity with the same cold, calculating eyes ("It feels good to be on top" they'll say in a robot voice, "If I had feelings, I mean", they'll add). "The edge," Damian says, "is in unique human skills."

Those skills are surprising. For starters, intelligence mattered. You'd think bots would be the calculator to our abacus but if you've got a good head on your shoulders, kudos because smarts and education count. Research showed that for every 15-point increase in IQ there's a 7 percent drop in probability that a machine will eventually take your place. Still, intellect only mattered to a point. While intelligence and higher education played a role in fending of obsolescence, they weren't nearly as crucial as the triumvirate of indispensability: personality, vocational interests, and oddly enough, maturity. Turns out machines are notoriously infantile. I guess prepare for a lot of "pull my mimetic polyalloy digit" jokes around the charging station/water cooler.   

To pinpoint these traits, researchers used the data sets of nearly 350,000 Americans from different socioeconomic backgrounds and looked at their vocational interests and temperament in high school and then analyzed how that affected their career trajectory over a span of 50 years. The study is the first of its kind to examine both personality and background in relation to machine vs human job security. The results were definitive. Researchers wrote, "we found that regardless of social background, people with higher levels of intelligence, higher levels of maturity and extraversion, higher interests in arts and sciences … tended to select (or be selected) into less computerizable jobs 11 and 50 years later." So, if you were a bright, outgoing, old soul with an enthusiasm for liberal arts in your teens, you're less likely to have chosen a professional path that ends with you being replaced by a robot. But don't get too cozy in that company chair yet, robotics continues to evolve exponentially and some jobs on the robot watch list might surprise you.   

Business media mag Fast Company says if you're a Taxidriver, Insurance Underwriter, Farmer, Financial Analyst, or Construction Worker, your job is ripe for automation. Prepare accordingly. My smugness was quickly quashed when I came upon Journalist and Actor in the list as well (good thing I got that Theatre Degree to back up my Lit Undergrad). Regardless, the Associated Press has been using intelligent software to write their quarterly reports since 2014. Only a matter of time before they let AI go after the big scoops, or maybe something simpler to cut their metal teeth on, like weird news. It's also easy to imagine an actor who didn't age and could do all its own stunts. Side note: almost certain Keanu Reeves is a robot. Not even the twin professional pillars of proud parenting, the doctor and the lawyer, were safe. Standard methodologies for each are largely based on routine checklists and precedent, two things machines could do in their sleep (if they slept). Actually, most jobs can be broken down into process-based tasks. Even something highly creative and highly social, like hairdressing, could be eventually automated. We all saw Edward Scissorhands. Bet you forgot that was a robot movie, huh. See, it's already started.

But Damian insists we can still avoid the fallout of global automation by embracing the special properties of a non-mechanical brain. The meat of that (pun intended) is recognizing our inherent value. "Robots can't perform as well as humans when it comes to complex social interactions." A robot wedding planner would have the sweets table and centerpieces sorted but if the groom didn't show up it might not know what to do (or maybe it would track the groom down and drag him to the alter?). "Humans also outperform machines when it comes to tasks that require creativity and a high degree of complexity that is not routine. As soon as you require flexibility, the human does better," says Damian. I want to say chef here, but keep coming back to one thought: everything is programmable, isn't it? What's a recipe if not a set of simple instructions. Then again, how could it taste what it's making? Metallic silver lining – I've just discovered a potential job of the future: human taster for robot chef.   

Damian asserts that while valuable markers like IQ tend be static in humans we could begin to train our kids, or any at risk individuals, in other ways. "Perhaps we should consider training personality characteristics that will help prepare people for future jobs." We might bolster EQ instead of IQ to improve social interaction, or offer mentorships that would cultivate an industrious hunger and an interest in the arts and sciences. The ultimate goal being to ready our fleshy offspring to compete with a workforce of tireless, invulnerable, super-strong, consistently precise workers. Sadly, career counselor would probably be a perfect job for a robot.   

"By preparing more people, at least more people will have a fighting chance," says Damian. Fighting chance is notable phrasing. If Hollywood (and countless futurists) are right, many are going to need all the help they can get in the battle to keep their jobs.  

Personality and creativity be damned, I'm crossing my fingers for the human food taster gig.


Marc Beaulieu is a writer, producer and host of the live Q&A show guyQ LIVE @AskMen