Before you invest $100,000 or more on a college diploma that will prepare you for a particular job, you should consider what the chances are that automation advances in the future will reduce your chances of getting or keeping the job. Let us look at which jobs will be most vulnerable to advances in automation and robotics in the next few decades.
Google is currently working on driver-less cars, and their self-driven cars have already logged thousands of miles on the road. Nevada has become the third US state to authorize the use of driver-less cars on a test basis. We can anticipate that in the future there will be far fewer driver jobs because of this advance. Do not be surprised if you find yourself in a self-driven taxi within another decade or two.
Waitress and Cook Jobs
It is easy to imagine an automation advance that will sharply reduce the number of waitresses and waiters. When you arrive at your table in the restaurant, you could see a little sign with a web address and a table number. You would then access the web site using your smart phone (which almost everyone seems to have these days), and navigate through an interface allowing you to choose your food. You would then type in your table number and pay by credit card. There would be several advantages: no chance of the waiter writing down your order wrong, no chance of customers skipping out without paying, and no need for tipping. The technology for such a system is basically already available.
Cooking is a fairly hard thing for a robot to do, so it may still be safe to be pursuing a degree in the culinary arts. But we can certainly imagine robots cooking in another decade or two in some restaurants with a limited menu.
In the next ten years, there is probably little risk of job reductions caused by teaching robots in the classroom. But as we go to out to a twenty or thirty year time frame, the risk grows much higher for elementary school teachers. Some type of elementary school instruction such as reading instruction involves a great deal of rote, repetitive work that is quite suitable for being handed over to a robot. We can imagine a slight modification in classroom procedures that might make teaching robots work quite well, such as a situation in which one half of the class works with a robot, and the other half with a human teacher.
As for college teachers, the threats to their jobs will not likely be from android robots, but from internet advances such as instructional videos on www.youtube.com and free online college courses, which have recently become very popular.
Any student borrowing lots of money to pursue a pharmacy career might cringe upon looking at the wikipedia.org article on pharmacy automation. There are already medicine-dispensing machines available, and in California an entire hospital pharmacy has been completely automated. It is easy to imagine a system in which a large fraction of drugs could be dispensed without requiring a pharmacist. Your doctor could give you a prescription with a barcode, and you could take that to a drugstore machine (similar to a vending machine) which would read the barcode and dispense the medication. Or your doctor could send an electronic message to some large drugstore machine, which could dispense the medicine, and put it into a little envelope with your name on it, ready for you to pickup.
Doctors and Nurses
Nursing jobs and physician jobs are probably fairly immune to automation advances in the next two decades. However, it is possible to imagine two ways in which automation will reduce employment in these medical fields. The first possibility is robot surgery, which is becoming more popular, and may reduce demand for surgeons. The second possibility is that they may soon develop some type of android doctor or “doctor in a computer” that would be used purely for boring, common cases. A doctor finds that 90% of his cases are the same old thing, and 10% are interesting, uncommon cases. We can easily imagine a typical doctor visit twenty years from now going like this: if you have a very common case or some boring request for a prescription renewal, you would see a “doctor in a computer” or an android doctor, but if you mention anything unusual, you then see the regular “in the flesh” doctor. If that type of thing catches on, it might reduce employment prospects for doctors and nurses.
Factory Workers and Warehouse Workers
If you are planning out your life as a young person, you had better not count on 40 years of employment in a factory or warehouse, as your father may have enjoyed. Already millions of factory jobs have been replaced by automation, and the number will probably grow much greater, particularly given advances in 3D printing which may make obsolete many manufacturing techniques relying on human labor. They currently have in place astonishing robotized warehouse workers, based on a system in which everything is put on small shelves, and robots slide under the shelves, moving them around automatically to assemble an order consisting of multiple items collected from different places in the warehouse. As such systems get better and better, more and more warehouse workers may lose their jobs.
Home Health Care Aides
As the tasks of a home health aide are usually fairly simple, rarely involving actual medical treatment, this is an area that is ripe for automation advances. It is not hard to imagine in about ten or fifteen years a type of robot that could replace many of the existing home health care aides.
I am tempted to call management employment “the beast that will not die.” Given the fact that being a manager involves huge amounts of subtle interaction with humans, it seems unlikely that anything like a robot manager could be developed in the next few decades. Creating a robot manager would require creating artificial intelligence almost equal to that of a human being, with political skills comparable to that of a human being. So there seems to be relatively little danger of a management major losing his job to a robot in the next few decades.
Accounting, Sales and Marketing Jobs
Even though computers are very good at math, accounting activities in large corporations typically involve a huge number of subtle matters of interpretation and law that robots and computers are not good at. Sales and marketing jobs also involve a great deal of subtle psychology that no machine is likely to be good at any time soon. So jobs in accounting, sales and marketing are probably relatively safe from advances in automation.
Computer Programming and Information Technology Jobs
It is remarkable how little progress has been made in automating the writing of computer code. There are systems out there that can write thousands of lines of code. The problem is that almost always what is needed is something different in a hundred ways from what a code-writing system will produce. I think there is actually little danger that automation will decrease by very much your chance of getting or keeping a computer science or software developer job. The amount of code written by computers may double, but the total amount of code that needs to be written will probably quadruple, resulting in a net gain for human programming employment.
Thinking of a long happy career as a Walmart cashier? Think again. When I'm done with this blog post I'm going to a discount chain where I'll use the “scan it yourself” automatic checkout line. The store currently has half of its checkout lines as automatic checkout lines, but how long will it be before there are no cashiers at any of the big stores?
The rise of 3D printing threatens jobs in the construction industry. It may be that the skyscrapers and houses of the future are built through a “layer by layer” process of 3D printing that requires little human labor, or built by a process in which humans just link together modules that were built by robots in a factory. But there will probably still be lots of construction work for renovations and cases when things break down. A 3D printer doesn't do you any good when a pipe springs a leak.