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March 24, 2015updated 22 Sep 2016 11:46am

10 jobs your computer will steal in the Second Machine Age

Is it time you considered new opportunities?

By Jimmy Nicholls

Steve Wozniak of Apple fame was only the most recent tech veteran to voice his concern that automation and artificial intelligence poses a threat to life as we know it.

Of course computers, and machines more generally, have been changing people’s lives since the invention of the most primitive tools, but IT is now reaching a point where it can match mental work and complicated physical activity previously held to be purely the domain of man.

The result is what academics Andrew McAfee and Erik Brynjolfsson have dubbed the Second Machine Age. But what jobs are about to be taken over by computers?

1. Journalism

Last year an earthquake in Los Angeles made headlines: but not for the shake itself. Instead news outlets around the world were amazed that the first report about the earthquake was written not by a journalist but by a piece of software called Quakebot.

Developed by LA Times journalist Ken Schwencke, the software follows similar projects to automate sports and financial journalism, a trend that has hacks everywhere wondering if they will soon be out of a job. Yet Schwencke does not see it that way.

"It saves people a lot of time, and for certain types of stories, it gets the information out there in usually about as good a way as anybody else would," he told Slate, a US current affairs publication. He added that this leaves humans more time to add detail to the story.

2. Labour

Machines have already replaced humans in many factories and agricultural settings, pushing much of the Western world towards a service based economy in comfortable, air-conditioned offices.

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However tasks that involve more than constant repetition have proved more of a challenge for machinists, which can include activities as basic as scaling ladders, opening doors and climbing stairs. One firm, Boston Dynamics, is working hard to solve this with its Atlas robot, which can already walk, pick itself up if it falls over, and complete basic physical tasks with its arms.

If this sounds a bit iRobot already, there are also moves to extend such technology to the home, including carers for the elderly. The development of robots like Baxter, which can sense their environment and learn how to complete common chores, makes this future increasingly likely.

3. Chess

Before IBM’s Deep Blue project got going many assumed that chess was too complex for a computer to ever hope to master. Whilst the machine’s ability to calculate potential moves put it ahead of any person, it was felt man would always have the strategic, long-term edge.

Such a theory was put explicitly to the test in two series of matches against world chess champion Gary Kasparov in 1996 and 1997. Whilst Kasparov beat Deep Blue in the first series the computer overcame the chess master in the second, becoming the first computer to beat a world champion in history.

Some have since disputed why exactly Kasparov lost, as well as the merits of a computer’s approach against a human’s. Yet few doubt that machine can match man in complex games.

4. War

The use of drone warfare has caused huge controversy under the administration of US president Barack Obama, who has made extensive use of the technology as part of his foreign policy.

Drawing uncomfortable comparisons with violent video games, the technology allows people to wage war remotely. As well as raising ethical questions, the project has prompted concerns of the psychological state of those who make war as a day job, returning to their families in the evenings as if it were a regular 9-to-5.

"It’s one thing to go through training and looking at virtual scenarios of helicopter crashes," An airman called Ray who works at the Langley Air Force Base in the US told the Guardian. "But seeing it live from thousands of miles away knowing those are our guys on the ground injured, it’s an indescribable feeling."

5. Transport

Moving items and people from place to place constitutes a sizeable chunk of the economy. Yet the emergence of projects such as Google’s self-driving car is a sure threat to anybody whose livelihood relies on the sector, with the technology already being run in some American cities.

Unlike their fleshy counterparts self-driving cars are unlikely to lose concentration on the road, and will not have to stop for toilet breaks or to go to bed. They are also likely to be cheaper than humans to employ, assuming they can dodge the regulatory scrutiny of the places in which they operate.

It is worth noting that automated vehicles are already common outside the car. Plans for the latest fleet of London Underground trains, unveiled by Transport for London last October, show the vehicles will be manned to begin with, but have been designed to be fully automated.

6. Stocks

The image of stockbroking is of packs of sweaty, angry men shouting, swearing and pushing against in each on a bustling trading floor. Yet for some years this has been gradually replaced by computer algorithms quietly trying to outdo one another, in what has culminated in high frequency trading.

Whereas transactions used to take minutes to process in stock markets, they can now be completed many times in a second. Such is the demand for speed that firms are willing to pay a premium to move their servers metres closer to the stock exchange, just to outrun their competitors.

Such tactics have led to accusations of market rigging, not least from Michael Lewis, author of Flash Boys, which covers high frequency trading in depth. Speaking to CNBC recently he reported that regulators were still struggling to respond to the trend.

7. Accountancy

Any task that involves maths was always likely to invite the heavy use of computers, which began life as oversized calculators. For years accountants have been increasingly using software like QuickBooks and Xero in their work, leading many to predict the tools will replace them.

Last year a report in the Economist even put the probability that computers would steal accountants’ lunches at 94%, with only telemarketers more likely to lose their jobs. Small businesses that cannot afford human fees are in effect already using IT to compensate.

Yet for some commentators there is still hope for the bean-counters. Whilst computers will do the sums faster and more effectively than humans can, it will be people who provide the advice and understanding that businesses need, they argue.

8. Health

Though known for its work on the US game show Jeopardy, in which it has beaten numerous general knowledge eggheads in the last decade, IBM’s artificial intelligence machine Watson is primarily focused on improving the healthcare industry.

Working like a general practitioner, Watson collects evidence about a patient’s symptoms to improve the accuracy of diagnosis, comparing it to the latest medical research and data to optimise the results at a rate no doctor could match.

Most recently this has worked through the schEMA app in the field for hair, nail and skin conditions, but plans are already being mooted to expand it to other areas.

9. Art

Ostensibly an unlikely avenue for computers to replace humans, the arts in an area where software developers have been trying to outflank humans for several decades, with some success.

One such program, dubbed Emily Howell by its creator David Cope of the University of Santa Cruz in the US, is able to compose music that people cannot tell apart from human compositions in blind tests. It works by analysing existing pieces and adding an element of randomness – creating something stylistically authentic yet original.

By Cope’s own admission the software requires input from him, not least in selecting which of the thousands of compositions are worth recording for the albums he has released, but it shows computers can make art just as people can.

10. Programming

All of the endeavours above require dedication and ingenuity from software programmers, who must teach computers to do ever more complex tasks. But what if computers could eventually put their creators out of a job?

The challenge for programmers is to create a piece of software that cannot only code, but can teach itself how to get better at it. Such an idea has been discussed for some decades, with some dubbing the field "genetic programming", drawing parallels with human evolution.

If the software can become smarter of its own accord, it may truly mean the end of work.

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