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The 78 skills that will be most difficult to automate

Tools to get you thinking about the role of humans and robots in the future


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Recently, my wife and I were eating at a local Japanese restaurant, watching the itamae – sushi chefs – carefully prepare each meal.

In Japan, becoming an itamae of sushi requires years of on-the-job training and apprenticeship.

I asked Deb if she would prefer eating sushi prepared by humans or the same delicate bites prepared by machines. After thinking for a bit, she said that she’d prefer a human chef because she liked the inconsistencies that come with having a human at the cutting board.

For her, machines mean flawless reliability and that was less appealing than a humanized operation with randomness added to the equation.

The key point here is that when it comes to automation, the marketplace will decide, and the market is not always logical.

  • We attend concerts even though listening to prerecorded music at home is safer, more comfortable and often higher quality.
  • We visit museums even though we can appreciate most of the images online without waiting in lines or fighting crowds.
  • We go to coffee shops even though we can brew the same coffee at home for far less money.

In each of these cases, the value of the experience far outweighs the incongruity of decisions being made.

The Irrational Human

Will a robot’s smile ever be as comforting as a mother’s?

If a robot tells you you’re beautiful, will that ever mean as much as when your significant other says it?

Robots don’t sweat, complain, go to the bathroom, take breaks, get angry or make mistakes.

We generally don’t design machines to be cruel, insulting, violent, lazy, vindictive, violent, irrational, clumsy, greedy, envious, hotheaded, power-hungry, selfish, shy, tactless, superficial, or stupid.

However, humans come with a number of positive characteristics to offset the negative ones. We can also be friendly, helpful, charming, warmhearted, courageous, empathetic, inspiring, bold, brilliant, resourceful, benevolent, gracious, humble and forgiving.

When it comes to designing machines to replace humans, we often forget how enormously complex we are.

We have a need to compete, a need to belong, a sense of purpose, we crave attention, love, importance and the human touch. 

The Human Economy

Yes, we are flawed, and as such, we have a number of basic needs.

We need things like water, food, shelter, clothing and security. Once those needs are met, a number of others kick in, like our need for belonging, companionship, love, intimacy and family.

As our lower level needs are met, we move up Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs to things like self-respect, self-esteem, status, fame, recognition, power, and freedom.

On the surface we may come across as incomplete beings, lacking in so many areas, the reality is that our needs are what drive our economy.

Every human deficiency creates a new market.

Grocery stores wouldn’t exist if we didn’t need food. The housing industry wouldn’t exist if we didn’t need shelter and safety.

Ironically, the reason robots exist is to support our basic human needs

Robots, on the other hand, do not have the same kind of needs.

The “either-or” debate

Will we buy music that’s generated by machines or music produced by humans?

Will we buy machine-made art, watch a robo-ballet, attend a car race with only driverless cars, or sit in a stadium to watch robo-athletes?

In virtually all of these cases, we’ll choose both. We’ll attend a human-run restaurant one day and a robo-restaurant the next. We’ll cheer on our favorite human team with one set of friends and cheer on our favorite robo-athletes with another.

We don’t live in an either-or world. Rather, our human culture has grown up around a more inclusive “both-and” economy.

Yes, new options will compete, leading to fewer restaurant workers per restaurant, and fewer artists and musicians to fill today’s demands. However, as demand increases, we may actually have more people working in these fields.

Our struggle will be to find balance.

  • Complex systems too expensive to automate

While there may be no such thing as a “complex system too expensive to automate,” it seems plausible that the more complex the system, the more humans will be involved to oversee potential breaking points.

  1. Space launches
  2. Asteroid mining
  3. Nanotech research
  4. Deep ocean research
  5. Demographic studies
  6. Linguistics analysis
  7. Material science
  8. Failure analysis
  • Creative endeavors only humans can appreciate

We have a great love for what creative people produce. Invariably we will use machines to help in these endeavors but there will always be people directing the effort.

  1. Visual arts
  2. Musical performance
  3. Poetry
  4. Fashion design
  5. Interior design
  6. Industrial design
  7. Beauty parlors
  8. Reputation designers and managers
  • Human-to-human interactions that produce an emotional response

These may seem like tiny pieces of humanity, but the value of these nuanced interfaces plays an extraordinary role in our relational experiences.

  1. An encouraging smile
  2. A persuasive argument
  3. A handshake
  4. A hug
  5. A romantic kiss
  6. A convincing sales pitch
  7. A massage
  8. Procreation
  • Decisions that need human-based reasoning

As our capabilities grow, we will see an ever-increasing need for ethical oversight. Our ability to destroy things will soon exceed our ability to create things, and we’ll need ever-vigilant watchdogs to protect humanity.

  1. Creation of new laws, policies and regulation
  2. Government oversight
  3. Basic troubleshooting
  4. Business planning
  5. Marketing strategies
  6. Managing animal shelters
  7. Child care
  8. Basic and advanced problem solving
  • Complicated outputs that demand oversight

As the number of sensors increases and the amount of data we deal with on a daily basis will progressively exceed human capacity, we’ll begin to automate analysis. However, there will still be a need for people to manage the exceptions and edge cases.

  1. Medical diagnosis
  2. Data analytics
  3. Legal systems
  4. Business executives
  5. Privacy advocates and experts
  6. Relationship-building strategies
  7. Birthing processes
  8. Genealogical mapping
  • Situations that require human touch

We are social creatures and strong social bonds invariably require touch.

  1. Teaching someone to sing, dance or juggle
  2. Teaching someone to gracefully enter a room
  3. Teaching someone to win a debate
  4. The importance to take a bath
  5. Teaching someone to do gymnastics
  6. Teaching someone to make reasonable decisions
  7. Teaching someone the value of human life
  • Loyalty

Fallible humans may not seem like the strongest link in a secure system but in many cases they become a crucial disconnected node in an otherwise hackable digital structure.

  1. Protecting public figures
  2. Keeping a secret
  3. Personal confidant
  4. Safeguarding corporate knowledge
  5. Robot displacement specialists
  6. Robot consultants
  7. Robot lobbyists
  8. Leaders of robot resistance groups
  • Human-to-human valuations

Since robots do not value objects the ways humans do, or make decisions about what constitutes a fair price on a product, the need for human value judgments will continue to be important.

  1. Buying stocks or commodities
  2. Voting
  3. Government policy decisions
  4. Decisions to act on a policy violations
  5. Buyers
  6. Purchasing agents
  7. Product and service ratings
  8. Surveys and polls
  • Positions where humans control robots

There are many positions where people will use robots as tools and evolve along with their industries, growing with each new productivity advancement.

  1. Business owners and managers
  2. Software designers and coders
  3. System engineers
  4. Product designers
  5. Robot maintenance and repair
  6. Robot configuration specialists
  7. Robot test technicians
  8. Auctioneer that specializes in selling robots
  • Human-to-human competition

We’re much more interested in our standing among other humans over how we compare to robots.

  1. Popular sports (i.e. football, basketball, soccer)
  2. Olympics and Paralympics
  3. Popularity competitions (i.e. beauty pageants, elections, etc.)
  4. Loyalty programs
  5. X-Prize competitions
  6. Startup funding pitches
  7. Conflict resolution


One of my readers, BJ Brown, recently passed along the following story:

When I was in northwestern Canada in the ‘70s I ask one of the locals why he still used dogs instead of snowmobiles. He replied, ‘When I’m out in bad conditions, the dogs have as much stake in getting home as I do. The snowmobile doesn’t care.’”

Will robots ever truly care?

Contrary to popular belief, most robot and AI systems act as a complement to humans rather than a replacement.

According to most experts, we are still years away from general artificial intelligence and full automation. But there will come a day where robots will perform most tasks and the role of humans in the production cycle will become marginalized.

My goal in writing this was not to develop an exhaustive list of safe jobs, but to create tools for thinking about the human role in our future.

Robots are coming. They’re coming with or without our blessing, and in shapes and forms we can’t even imagine.

But they also come with limits, limits that we will soon discover along the way. 

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Thomas Frey

Thomas Frey is the executive director and senior futurist at the DaVinci Institute and currently Google’s top-rated futurist speaker.  At the Institute, he has developed original research studies, enabling him to speak on unusual topics, translating trends into unique opportunities. Tom continually pushes the envelope of understanding, creating fascinating images of the world to come.  His talks on futurist topics have captivated people ranging from high level of government officials to executives in Fortune 500 companies including NASA, IBM, AT&T, Hewlett-Packard, Unilever, GE, Blackmont Capital, Lucent Technologies, First Data, Boeing, Ford Motor Company, Qwest, Allied Signal, Hunter Douglas, Direct TV, Capital One, National Association of Federal Credit Unions, STAMATS, Bell Canada, American Chemical Society, Times of India, Leaders in Dubai, and many more. Before launching the DaVinci Institute, Tom spent 15 years at IBM as an engineer and designer where he received over 270 awards, more than any other IBM engineer.

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