Big Data Warning: There Will Be Many Job Casualties!

October 22, 2013
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The ‘Big Data tsunami’ is coming at us with unstoppable force. Across the world, we generate new data at a frightening rate. In fact, the same amount of data that was created from the beginning of time, up to 2008, will soon be created every 10 minutes – and the rate is accelerating faster than a rocket car on steroids.

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The ‘Big Data tsunami’ is coming at us with unstoppable force. Across the world, we generate new data at a frightening rate. In fact, the same amount of data that was created from the beginning of time, up to 2008, will soon be created every 10 minutes – and the rate is accelerating faster than a rocket car on steroids.

Now, combine this data revolution with the latest developments in analytics, cloud computing and robotics and you get a lethal cocktail that could eliminate many jobs as we know them today. And I am not just talking about manual labor jobs but any jobs, including those of ‘knowledge workers’, doctors, police officers, care nurses and airline pilots. Is your job at risk?

Let me explain: I believe that robots and devices, armed with sensors and data transmitters, together with big data analytics engines, could challenge most of our jobs. Here are some examples of what I mean:

  • Taxi-drivers: When I was in the back of a car driving from Silicon Valley to San Francisco airport, I noticed Google’s self-driving car on the road.  I said to the diver, “Hey, check this out. The car we just passed has no driver in it. It’s Google’s self-driving car. It drives by analyzing a gigantic amount of data from sensors and cameras in real time to stay on the road safely.” His reply was, “So that means that Google will take away my job soon.” This made me think a little more about the fact that our ability to process data will have an impact on so many jobs… My thoughts continued on my journey across Europe.
  • Pilots: We know that autopilots have been assisting pilots to fly planes for many years. However, the latest commercial airliners are now able to fly unaided. They can take off and land you safely (arguably, safer than humans as most air disasters are down to human error). We just have to look at the military, where now unmanned aircrafts – so-called ‘drones’ – are taking over. Fighter jet pilots will be Air Force history soon and substituted by professional gamers who have much better joystick control. 
  • Border Control Agents: When I was in Helsinki airport to catch a plane to London, I used the electronic passport machines. You put your passport in; the machine scans it; then uses a camera and sensors to scan your face to see whether they match. Then the doors open and you go through immigration. No human contact and no need for border control agents any more. The machines do a better and more reliable job. Of course, I know that border control agents do much more than passport control but I would say it takes up the majority of their staff time. Even some of the other jobs they used to do are now performed by machines and algorithms: scanning luggage; calculating risks of smuggled items from particular flights; conducting background checks on passengers, etc.
  • Doctors: Surgeons already use many robotic tools to perform complicated operations, and doctors use large-scale databases of medical information to inform their decisions and prescriptions. However, wind the time forward a little and I can see a scenario where a full body scanner takes a complete 3D image of you; a robot removes your hipbone, while a 3D printer produces the perfectly matching replacement bone which is then inserted by the robot – all done unaided by humans. What’s more, supercomputers will be able to make solid diagnoses based on the entire world’s medical knowledge, as well as data on your own medical history, diagnostics and DNA code. What will be the role of doctors?
  • Nurses: Robots can dish out medication; wearable devices can monitor our blood pressure and heart rate, and smart phones can provide us with reassuring feedback at a push of a button.  A hospital unit that looks after premature and sick babies is now applying real time analytics on recordings of every breath and of every heartbeat of all babies in their unit. An algorithm applied to the data can now predict infections 24 hours before a baby shows any visible symptoms. Intervention and treatment can be triggered earlier, which is so vital in fragile babies. With the advances in wearable technology and smart watches, we will soon be able to monitor all aspects of our health 24 hours a day. That way, nurses will be freed from many aspects of their job and should enable them to focus more on the actual human-to-human care part of their job. But will we need the same amount of nurses?
  • Customer Support Agents: I dread ringing call centers. First you have the automated messages, then you have to find the right options and the queuing before you can speak to a person (if you are lucky, that is). If big data systems could eliminate all this, I would actually prefer to speak to them. Don’t get me wrong, I’d rather talk to people than machines, but I can use my friends for that.  We are now seeing the rise of natural language systems that are able to have a conversation with humans. For example, IBM has developed Watson – a computer that recently challenged two of the all-time best Jeopardy! players. Without access to the Internet, Watson won the game by interpreting natural language questions and answering back after analyzing its massive data memory (which included a copy of the entire Wikipedia database). This kind of technology would mean that you always speak to the ‘right person’, without the need for queuing or routing.
  • Sports Coaches: We can now buy baseballs with sensors in them to track and analyze your game performance. By transmitting the data to your smart phone, you get immediate feedback on how to improve your technique.  Many sports teams use cameras and sensors to track and analyze the performance of every player on the field, at any given point in time. The Olympic cycling team, in the UK, uses bikes that are fitted with sensors on their pedals and collect data on how much acceleration every push on the pedal generates. This allows the team to analyze the performance of every cyclist in every race, and every single training session. In addition, the team has started to integrate data from wearable devices (like smart watches) the athletes wear on their wrist. These devices collect data on calorie consumption, sleep quality, air quality, exercise levels, etc. The latest innovation now is to integrate analysis of social media posts, to better understand the emotional states of athletes and how this might impact on track performance. Similarly to nurses, maybe coaches can focus more on the emotional wellbeing of players?
  • Journalists: A company called Narrative Science recently launched a software product that can write newspaper stories about sports games directly from the games’ statistics. The same software can now be used to automatically write an overview of a company’s business performance using information available on the web. It uses algorithms to turn the information into attractive articles. Newspapers of the future could be fully automated. 

I think you are getting the picture, right? Some of these examples are visions of the future, while others are already here and are redefining our job market as you read this.  I believe big data analytics, artificial intelligence and robots will eliminate many jobs and I am not sure that we have a clear idea of how to change our society to cope with this transformation. One thing is for certain, working in the field of big data, analytics, robotics and artificial intelligence is a safe bet. But will there be enough jobs to go round? What do you think? 

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