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by Vault Careers | February 23, 2011


It's been a bad couple of weeks for the human race—or at least our case for sustained employability into the future. First we learned that machines can now print three dimensional objects, throwing the future of the manufacturing industry into serious doubt. And then a computer proved that it can beat even the best of us at Jeopardy.

The second of those factoids might not seem like much to be concerned about. After all, storing mountains of data and then accessing it in a split second is what computers are designed for. But consider this quote from a piece written by Ken Jennings, one of the Jeopardy champs recently dethroned by IBM's Watson:

"IBM has bragged to the media that Watson's question-answering skills are good for more than annoying Alex Trebek. The company sees a future in which fields like medical diagnosis, business analytics, and tech support are automated by question-answering software like Watson. Just as factory jobs were eliminated in the 20th century by new assembly-line robots, Brad and I were the first knowledge-industry workers put out of work by the new generation of "thinking" machines. "Quiz show contestant" may be the first job made redundant by Watson, but I'm sure it won't be the last."

While there's nothing new in the realization that manufacturing processes can be automated and outsourced the concept that computers armed with sophisticated speech pattern recognition could replace human "knowledge workers" is a newer one.

Whether or not each of the possibilities raised by Jennings comes to pass—medical diagnosis, for example, seems significantly less likely than tech support—advances in technology are something we should all bear in mind when thinking of future career paths.

That's borne out by the recent BLS projections of industries likely to grow and decline over the coming years. Looking again at the lists, it's clear that industries likely to decline as sources of employment are those where skills can be outsourced or replaced with technology. Those likely to grow, meanwhile, either require a high degree of creativity, a human or ultra-local touch (example: at-home healthcare), or to be involved in the design and programming of the technology itself. After all, it can't beat you if you know how to build it…right?

Read More:
Slate: My Puny Human Brain
The Economist: Print Me a Stradivarius

--Phil Stott,


Filed Under: Workplace Issues

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