The automation-resistant skills we should nurture

Source: BBC News

By Livia Gershon

Disruptive technologies such as artificial intelligence and big data are changing the world of work.  Retail jobs are disappearing in the US while the online sellers supplanting them fill their warehouses with robots instead of human workers. In China, manufacturing businesses that fled wealthy countries to find low-wage workers are now replacing those humans with machines. And on farms around the world, automated systems are beginning to take on backbreaking tasks like weeding lettuce. Studies have found that new technologies threaten around 40% of existing US jobs, and two-thirds of jobs in the developing world.

New technologies threaten around two-thirds of jobs in the developing world

There is one kind of job though, that is both indispensable and difficult – perhaps impossible – to automate: the kind that requires emotional skills. Artificially intelligent software is being built that can recognise emotions in people’s faces and voices, but it is a long way from simulating genuine empathy, and philosophers have been arguing for centuries that a machine with real feelings is impossible. Computers are nowhere near being able to compete with humans on the ability to really understand and connect with another human being.

(Credit: Getty Images)

As populations in many countries age and non-communicable diseases grow, the WHO says that the world will need 40 million new health workers by 2030 (Credit: Getty Images)

If these jobs can’t be automated, and will continue to be necessary into the future, workers with emotional skills will be highly in demand in the coming decades. But, right now, the jobs that depend most on these skills are often badly compensated: a Business Insider poll put childcare workers and high school teachers in a list of the top ten most underpaid professions.

Emotional skills include all the abilities that let us recognise and respond appropriately to emotional states in ourselves and others. They’re a ubiquitous, yet largely invisible, part of a huge and perhaps surprising array of jobs. It’s the supermarket cashier pleasantly asking how you’re doing. It’s a supervisor correcting a subordinate’s mistake while making sure he still feels valued and capable. It’s a salesman watching a potential customer’s face to see if she’s sceptical about his pitch.

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