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A brave new world of work

Troy Becker / Forum News Service

FARGO — We're a long way from the science fiction realms of Westworld, Blade Runner or Star Wars, where robots, androids and artificial intelligences do the dirty jobs, cater to our whims, and sometimes pay us back with bloody R-rated rebellion.

But change is coming to many, if not most, workplaces.

Robotics, AI and machine learning already have a major impact. Just ask the folks in the U.S. auto industry, which employs nearly half of the nation's robots — and a lot fewer assembly line workers.

For workers to survive and thrive in the workplace in the next couple decades, the ability to adapt and learn, perhaps through multiple careers, will be key.

ABI Research estimates the number of industrial robots sold in the U.S. could jump nearly 300 percent in less than a decade.

And the McKinsey Global Institute predicted in a 2017 report that between 39 million and 73 million U.S. jobs could be automated by 2030, and up to 800 million jobs worldwide.

"I tell my students to look out the window and describe what is moving," says Fred Riggins, director of North Dakota State University's Center for Enterprise Business Analytics.

Cars, buses, trucks will likely become autonomous parts of the internet of things in the near future, he said.

"A friend in retirement is enjoying driving Uber and Lyft," Riggins says, musing that the job may not be there when he retires.

Firms like Amazon, DHL, Tesla, Best Buy, Target, Lowe's, Adidas and many others are testing or investing in robotics to improve their warehousing, inventory, production and customer service operations.

If the job is predictable physical work requiring little skill, or involves data processing or collection, it may well be taken up by a machine or software program.

Tens of million of workers will need to find new work and many will need to be retrained — perhaps again and again.

The shift promises to be as massive as the jolting changes from the agriculture- and manufacturing-dominated societies of the past.

How do you avoid being rolled in this potential automation apocalypse?

Be ready to employ career kung fu: choose your occupation wisely, grasshopper, and be ready to be a lifetime learner.

Key attributes for success include creativity, critical thinking, emotional intelligence, and a science, technology, engineering, arts and math education for complex problem solving.

Tomorrow's workers will "have to reinvent themselves several times," Riggins predicts.

Jane Pettinger, who teaches human resource management at Minnesota State University Moorhead, said the ability to master new technologies — beyond your smartphone — will be a necessary workplace survival skill.

But people will still be part of the equation.

"People may not be doing the attaching nuts and bolts, but they will be monitoring the computers that do," Pettinger said. "Still people, but at a higher level."

The following are some of the occupations that should hold up in the age of robotics and AI:

The human touch

Jobs that require "high human touch" are relatively safe in the foreseeable future, Riggins said.

"Things like nursing, health care obviously. Services where people need specific service tasks done," Riggins said. "We want the person understanding our emotions, understanding our wants and needs. I don't think robots could do that."

At the same time, technology is expanding access to doctors through telemedicine, and medical knowledge is more accessible on the web, Pettinger said.

"It's hard to perceive doctors as being threatened. But telemedicine and getting medicine through a website is happening. It might not be good medical care, but it's happening. WebMD is pretty good," Pettinger said.

Older people might insist on seeing a doctor in person, younger people may be more comfortable with using tech to get a diagnosis and treatment, she said.

At the same time, "I wouldn't say that doctors are threatened. Every medical organization is frustrated in trying to hire doctors," Pettinger said.

Potential jobs include:

• Nurses

• Physicians

• Psychiatrists and therapists

• Physician's Assistant or Nurse Practitioner

• Physical therapist

• Occupational therapists

• Midwives

• Dietitians

• Nutritionists

Making the tech

High technology requires minds to envision change and drive improvements.

"If robots become more prevalent, who's going to design robots?" Riggins asks.

While it's possible robots could someday design robots, Riggins said the job will likely be driven by human creativity, aided by AIs and robots.

"Perhaps, that's the goal we want to get to," Riggins said.

Potential jobs include:

• Civil engineers

• Aerospace engineers

• Software engineers

• Scientists

• Systems designers and analysts

• Robotics engineers and technicians

• Mechanical engineers and technicians

Teachers

Teachers are unlikely to be replaced, Riggins said. Again, it's a "high touch" area where humans respond best when working with other humans.

"I don't think most students want to take a course offered by a robot. It's a knowledge-intensive occupation. A machine can supply support, but can't make the decisions needed" when working with students, Riggins said.

Pettinger agrees. While today's students may be digital natives, they are still children.

"Kids are still kids. They still have behavioral and attention issues that will limit the number of kids that can be handled," Pettinger said.

Online classes increase the geographic reach of a class, but they are more time intensive per student, Pettinger said. She can work with 35 students in a classroom, but an online course may be limited to 25 because of all of the written communication required.

"It's more efficient to work face to face. We require a higher degree of interaction because we aren't face to face," Pettinger said.

Potential jobs include:

• Pre-kindergarten through 12th-grade teachers

• Special education teachers

• College and graduate school instructors

• Trade school and technical college instructors

Builders, protectors

The skills to build a home, repair a diesel engine, save a life or fight a fire will also be harder to replace by machines.

"It's hard to imagine construction workers being totally replaced. Again, we'll have automation helping people being productive, but that won't eliminate the worker," Riggins said.

"I like to think we can try to develop robots to go into harm's way for us. We do that now with advanced aircraft. But that doesn't eliminate the need for soldiers and firefighters," Riggins said.

Potential jobs include:

• Construction workers

• Power line and telecommunications technicians

• Heavy vehicle and mobile equipment repair technicians

• Bus and truck mechanics (diesel engine specialists)

• Military personnel

• Police

• Firefighters

• Emergency and first responders

• Social workers, counselors

The creatives

Computers are great for analyzing structured data, but they haven't yet been able to write good literature or develop logos. Has a machine been able to make you laugh or cry? (Other than when it goes haywire?)

"The jobs that will be less threatened are those that involve creativity. A computer won't be able to create a marketing video," Pettinger said.

"I don't know if a robot can entertainment me. And then you look at video games. They entertain people for hours and hours and hours. Maybe the entertainment industry should worry," she mused, before adding, "There will always be a need for human creativity and interpretation. I do believe that."

AI and specialized software is now being used by some news organizations to go through documents and news releases, creating headlines and stories. But Pettinger and others believe humans will still be needed for more sophisticated stories.

"Interpretation of information that swirls around us all the time is essential," Pettinger said. "The role of journalists is going to become even more important. Understanding the world around us is that much more critical."

Potential jobs include:

• Authors

• Journalists

• Entertainers

• Artists

• Graphic designers

Legal, financial

If you're arrested, are you prepared to have your fate decided by a software program, or to rely on a computer to mount your defense? Making sense of complex laws and formulating arguments isn't something computers can do yet.

Also, while simple accounting can be automated, higher-level decisions are still best made by people, Pettinger said.

"Financial decisions are going to guided by analysis and data, but people still need to take that data and determine what it means," Pettinger said. "There is still the human element, the qualitative choice-making."

Potential jobs include:

• Judges

• Attorneys

• Financial analysts

• Business analysts

Supervisors

The ability to manage people and resources, and to get those people to work together well toward a common goal or goals, will remain a valuable skill. Someone will also be needed to supervise the machines in factories, farms and other settings.

"That, too, requires human touch. I don't think we want employees managed by robots," Riggins said.

"Managing is going to involve managing resources like robots, buildings and ... people. There still will be people. Maybe people will just be taking care of robots, but there will still be people," Pettinger said.

Helmut Schmidt

Helmut Schmidt was born in Germany, but grew up in the Twin Cities area, graduating from Park High School of Cottage Grove. After serving a tour in the U.S. Army, he attended the University of St. Thomas in St Paul, Minn., graduating in 1984 with a degree in journalism. He then worked at the Albert Lea (Minn.) Tribune and served as managing editor there for three years. He joined The Forum in October 1989, working as a copy editor until 2000. Since then, he has worked as a reporter on several beats, including K-12 education, Fargo city government, criminal justice, and military affairs. He is currently one of The Forum's business reporters.

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