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Why Your London-based Job Might Not Exist In 2039

2039: it’s a futuristic date like something out of a Back To the Future film. But the truth is that it’s only twenty years away, and by then, London could be radically different.

pepper the robot

Just look at the changes that have occurred over the last twenty years. In 1999, the internet was only four years old, Amazon was not a household name, few people had heard of Google, the human genome was yet to be mapped, and jobs like “digital marketer” barely existed. AI was still reliant on expert systems, not today’s machine learning heuristics, and the idea that you could hold a supercomputer in your hand that was a camera, radio, TV and shopping device all at the same time would have seemed ludicrous.

We all know how things played out

Technology’s disruptive capacity is what makes it such a powerful force in our society. Just imagine, for instance, what our cities would look like if nobody had invented the personal motor vehicle. Suburbs would make no sense, and most people who couldn’t afford a horse and carriage would be forced to live in high-density accommodation in the urban centre.

Technological change has always been disruptive throughout human history. When people first discovered how to use steam, towns and cities were connected, and markets opened up, leading to the first factories. In the 1990s, the internet changed how people worked and communicated, and today we’re on the cusp of a new set of technologies that look set to change London again, including how we work.

AI Will Replace Many Cognitive Tasks

Back in 2012, artificial intelligence was barely on the radar. The field had been going through one of its many “winters” – a period in which the hype of what AI could achieve turns into despair when the technology doesn’t work as intended. But in 2012, Google found that it could use neural net technology to recognise the difference between cats and other objects, thanks to the millions of cat photos plastered across the internet. Once trained, the AI was able to distinguish cats in pictures with a high degree of accuracy – something that no machine had managed before.

Since then, the scope of AI applications has grown. Not only can AI algorithms now recognise objects in their field of view, but they can also intuitively play games, as demonstrated by London-based Deep Mind’s Alpha Go victory over world champion Lee Sedol.

AI is already eating up a large number of tasks in the economy. Chatbots, for instance, could replace the work currently done by human customer service reps. AI could also eliminate millions of driving jobs if autonomous vehicles make it onto the road.

However, the list of jobs that AI will replace outright in London is limited. While AI is excellent at performing specific tasks, it’s often not able to replace entire job roles which incorporate many tasks. For instance, hospitals now use AI to give more accurate radiography diagnoses, but that doesn’t mean that doctors will no longer exist in two decades. AI, as yet, does not have any contextual knowledge: it can recognise a cat in a picture, but it has no idea that a cat is a living creature or that if you step on its tail, it’ll screech.

AI Is An Opportunity

Economists classify technologies into two categories: those which complement labour, and those that replace it. A complementary technology is one that increases the value of a person’s time. With a desktop computer, a worker can get more done in a day (and earn a higher wage) than without. A technology that replaces labour is one that reduces the value of labour. Chatbots, for instance, replace customer service reps by doing everything they do, but at practically zero cost.

We don’t know how AI will impact the economy, but there’s a good chance that many digital marketing jobs in London will be changed forever, especially in the financial sector. The people who stand the best chance of thriving over the next twenty years will be those who know how AI works and who can use it in their place of work. People who can deploy AI solutions will likely be highly valuable to companies.

Furthermore, the people who focus on the stuff that machines can’t do will also insulate themselves from disruption. It’s unlikely that by 2039 that computers will be able to human-centric things, like education children, provide counselling, or start their own businesses. We still need breakthroughs in the underlying technology for that to happen. However, if somebody does succeed in developing general artificial intelligence, all bets are off.


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