Avoiding the Fate of Horses, Taxi Drivers, and Physicians

Future-proof yourself by embracing the act of lifelong learning.

Twenty-some years ago, I applied for a bank scholarship to subsidize my university tuition. As part of the application, I was asked to submit an essay that A) described what I intended to study and B) predicted (guessed?) my professional impact upon graduation. I was essentially asked to project the bank’s return on their scholarship investment.

In my answer, I tried to balance my current academic interests (science) with what I thought would be the most responsible answer in the eyes of the scholarship review committee (doctor). At the time, it seemed reasonable to assume that my passion for science could lead me to medical school and that following med school, the market would welcome another newly graduated doctor with open arms. In 1996, when charting your educational journey to align with future professional security, studying to become a lawyer, banker or doctor seemed to be the safest of bets. In 2017, it feels like all bets are off when predicting future professional security. Even for young, aspiring doctors. 

In his recent essay for Nature - "Reboot for the AI revolution" - Yuval Noah Harari describes a not-too-distant future where hundreds of millions of humans have been pushed out of the job market by disruptions caused by artificial intelligence. He also suggests that the humans who’ll be left on the outside of the workforce looking-in won’t only be the manual, routine workers who have been in competition with robots for decades. The workplace revolution losers are also likely to include more than a few doctors:

In the clinic, for example, automation might prove more of a threat to doctors than to nurses. Many physicians focus almost exclusively on processing information: they absorb medical data, analyse them and produce a diagnosis. Nurses also need good motor and emotional skills, to give a painful injection, replace a bandage and listen with care. We will probably have an AI family doctor on our smartphone years before we have a reliable nurse robot.

Harari covers similar ground in his wonderful book, Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow, urging us humans not to overestimate the workplace benefits of 'personality,' recalling the fate of horses during the Industrial Revolution:

An ordinary farm horse can smell, love, recognize faces, jump over fences and do a thousand other things far better than a Model T Ford or a million-dollar Lamborghini. But cars nevertheless replaced horses because they were superior in the handful of tasks that the system really needed. Taxi drivers are highly likely to go the way of horses.

Given the imminent job market disruption, what can we humans do to avoid going the way of the horses? Picking a career path that seems to offer the greatest future professional security, and then putting all of your certification, skill-building and developmental eggs in that particular basket now appear incredibly risky when no individual career or profession is immune from the oncoming, AI-induced volatility. As a result, Harari believes that the answer lies in revolutionizing education.

Specifically, he argues that mass job automation and the resulting job-market messiness won’t only result in the wiping out of existing jobs, but in the creation of new types of jobs; high-paying jobs that will require humans (and not robots) to perform non-routine work. And that in order to make use of all of these new, non-routine job opportunities, people will need to embrace the act of lifelong learning:

The AI revolution won’t be a single event after which the job market and the educational system will settle into a new equilibrium. Rather, it will be a cascade of ever-bigger disruptions. Even today, few employees expect to work in the same job for their entire life . By 2050, not just the idea of ‘a job for life’, but even the idea of ‘a profession for life’ might seem antediluvian. It will become increasingly difficult to know what to teach schoolchildren and university students.

Couple Harari’s thoughts on the increasingly chaotic job market with the well-established belief that today’s middle-managers will be active members of the workforce for decades to come, children and university students aren’t the only people who should rethink their approach to learning. We could all benefit from becoming lifelong learners; continually sharpening our leadership, creativity and communication skills will strengthen, lengthen and deepen our careers and help us avoid joining the horses, taxi drivers, and doctors on the professional sidelines.