In today’s economy, many American factory workers can honestly say, “I was replaced by a robot.”
With the rise of artificial intelligence, machine learning, and quantum computing power—the hallmarks of our fourth industrial revolution—computer programmers’ jobs may be the next at stake.
That is if we continue thinking about programmers the way we once did factory workers on the assembly line: specialists with one, well-honed skill that they are able to repeat ad infinitum.
Our current perspective on the labor market is stuck in the 18th century. If we expect our workforce to keep up with the massive shift that’s already underway, it’s high time we redefine the way we think about technology’s role in our economy.
This Revolution Is Different
Each industrial revolution we’ve experienced until now has followed a similar pattern: the introduction of a new technology, increased division of labor, and improved efficiency resulting in greater productivity. We’ve seen the full trajectory of this scenario play out over the last 200 years in the American manufacturing industry. The continuous introduction of new technologies has increased efficiency to the point where productivity can continue to grow, even with fewer workers on the job.
Unlike the three previous industrial revolutions, which were all characterized by the division of labor and the specialties of skilled workers, the current revolution is based on connectivity, collaboration, and the fusion of industries, rather than their separation.
One can clearly see this already with the many portmanteaus used to describe emerging industries, such as fintech, adtech, and biotech. Soon, we will no longer see technology as a standalone industry, but rather as a current that runs through all industries, like steam power or electricity.
Of course, just as not all American manufacturing jobs have evaporated (in fact, we’ve recently seen an increase), programming jobs won’t completely disappear either. They will, however, just as with manufacturing, undergo a significant paradigm shift.
The end goal of machine learning—a leading technological advancement many coders are working on right now—is for computers to learn to write their own code. With this in mind, programmers who have focused on developing one specialized skill set could soon be out of a job.
A New Era For Soft Skills
As artificial intelligence and machine learning mature, there will be less demand for specialized, hard skills and an increased demand for the soft skills machines can’t replace.
ZipRecruiter data shows this shift is already happening. Collaboration has been one of the top 10 skills mentioned in active job postings on Ziprecruiter.com every month since January 2017. (For comparison, it didn’t make the top 10 list once in the previous year.) In a recent study of the top skills required for artificial intelligence jobs, collaboration ranked fourth in a list dominated by other soft skills such as communication skills and analytical thinking.
As computers get better at programming themselves, employers will have an increasing need for tech-savvy managers who can track, analyze, and optimize the performance of both humans and machines. Fostering this rare combination of skills will require a retooling of our education system, to be less compartmentalized and more interdisciplinary.
The first industrial revolution was made possible by harnessing steam power. The fourth industrial revolution will depend on STEAM power. That is to say, rather than pushing for education in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math), the shift toward an increasingly connected and automated economy will require an education in STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts, and math).