Want a job in 2050? Work on your empathy and perspective skills, experts say

Automation will only take us so far, and the dream of a generalized intelligent machine is still too far off to measure.

Working in the far future will require fewer technical skills and more human skills

As artificial intelligence and the metaverse become more closely woven into the fabric of our society, what will the future of work be like? (Ben Shannon/CBC)

The workplace has been a dramatically changing landscape over the last two years, thanks to the pandemic. But what work will look like 30 years from now is largely unknown. 

Will we all be replaced by intelligent machines that do all the work so all humans have to do is relax and play games?

Probably not, said Jerry Kaplan, a computer scientist at Stanford University and the author of Humans Need Not Apply, an examination of the future of work.

That's because although we are automating more and more tasks all the time, we are still very far from building a machine that has any kind of generalized intelligence that could apply its knowledge beyond what it's trained for, as humans frequently do.

Computer Scientist, entrepreneur and author, Jerry Kaplan (Stanford University)

Kaplan said it's a common myth that we are "climbing a Jacob's Ladder" toward robots that are smarter than humans. Rather, the pattern is toward more automation. "If we follow that pattern forward, we're simply going to see more and more tasks that are kind of shaved off. And there's no reason to believe that, in fact, machines are becoming more and more intelligent in the general sense," he told Spark host Nora Young.

Vivienne Ming, an AI expert and the founder of philanthropic accelerator Socos Labs, agreed. "Sometimes there's this notion that that's just a bigger version of something we already have — that if we made a sufficiently sophisticated toaster, it would someday wake up and prefer tea versus coffee. But that isn't actually how this stuff works."

Nonetheless, both said the increasing power of AI automation will make more and more routine jobs redundant, and in many cases training for specific skills that could be done by a machine could be a risky plan.

Neuroscientist and AI expert, Vivienne Ming (Thermal Speakers)

Rather, Kaplan and Ming said, we need to have a workforce that is creative, adaptable and empathetic, so-called "soft" skills that can't be automated.

It also means that the credentials so frequently touted on resumés may not be as useful in the future. "We look at people's names and the school they went to. What is the last job that they held? And knowing that someone went to an elite university is saying something," she said. "But what we found was mainly what it's saying is about the kind of person that gets into that university, rather than a change that university made. We found 10 to 100 times as many equally qualified elite workers didn't have these elite pedigrees. So there's a huge untapped talent pool."

Ming said real gains in productivity could come from human creativity blending with the speed and processing power of an AI, a sort of hybrid model. This is already happening, and has been for a long time, Kaplan pointed out. The mere fact that you can record an interview in real time from one side of the continent to the other is evidence of humans and technology working together.

Both Ming and Kaplan said the metaverse — the concept that we will live our lives through virtual doppelgangers that exist only online in a virtual reality — is a long way off, if it's ever going to happen.

Moreover, we've been there before. "Obviously, if you've been around for a while, you remember when Second Life was supposed to change how everyone works. And there were conferences that were held inside second lives and companies held events there. It's not a new idea."

The key, looking ahead into the far future, is to make sure our children and grandchildren are prepared, something that is very stressful to many parents of young kids.

"I think that the demographics are such that the amount of demand for workers is likely to exceed the supply of workers for the foreseeable future. And so the first thing I would say is, don't worry about it, your kids will be able to get a job," Kaplan said. He pointed out that if someone from 1800 showed up here, they would be amazed at what people do for careers, compared with life 200 years ago.

"If you go back to the 1800s, the early 1800s, over 90 per cent of the U.S. population worked in agriculture and only 10 per cent did everything else," he said. "Today, only two per cent of the population works in agriculture and the other 98 per cent are doing the stuff that you and I are doing right now in other activities…. Our machines have freed us from work. That's the way [someone from 1800] would look at it, and they don't know what we're doing today or why we're doing it. Why are we even bothering? We have plenty of food to eat."

Ming said she's optimistic about the future, provided people realize "that technology itself never solves problems. People solve problems, " she added. "If you build technologies and you don't actually understand the problems that we're trying to solve, the world gets worse."

Written & produced by Adam Killick.