As we are entering the third Industrial Revolution, more and more of our jobs will be replaced by robots and algorithms. Some estimates claim that 5 million jobs or more will be lost to machines by 2020.
And it’s not science fiction or paranoia; as advances in big data, deep learning, robotics, and artificial intelligence increase exponentially, so does the number and variety of jobs that machines will be able to do — not just well, but better.
So how do you know if your job is one of the ones at risk? One way to think about your job and how vulnerable it is is to distinguish between Algorithmic and Heuristic work.
An algorithm is defined as “a self-contained step-by-step set of operations to be performed.” We tend to think of algorithms in terms of math and computers, but they can be done by people as well.
With the advent of the factory and assembly line, algorithmic work became the norm during the Industrial Revolution. Instead of a single person producing an entire chair, the work was pieced out to different workers making the same piece over and over again. This worker turns the legs while that one weaves the cane for the seat, and this third one assembles the back…
This process of breaking work down into its component parts was revolutionary for its time. It turned the process of creating a product from an artisanal one into an algorithmic one.
The problem with algorithmic work is that it can be done by anyone — or any thing. As robots and computers become more agile and dexterous, the limitations of what a machine can accomplish compared to a human shrinks. In fact, when the goal is standardization and speed, often a robot is the better choice compared with the human.
We’ve seen this happen in the past: elevator operators and switchboard operators become obsolete, assembly line workers replaced with robots. But in the very near future, it will extend to all sorts of rote work including certain customer service and technical support jobs (answering the same questions again and again), delivery drivers, data entry, file clerks, etc.
If your job currently requires that you perform the same set of tasks, step-by-step, over and over again, your work is algorithmic, and therefore at risk of being outsourced to a machine.