The jobs of the future, circa 1988

A syndicated article published in the September 5, 1988, edition of the Press and Sun-Bulletin newspaper in New York talked with a number of experts about what the jobs of tomorrow would look like. The article first quotes S. Norman Feingold, a clinical psychologist and career counselor who died in 2005.

From the 1988 article:

Feingold envisions a range of exotic careers: Ocean hotel manager, wellness consultant, sports law specialist, lunar astronomer and even robot trainer.

The piece also quotes the George Tech engineering professor Alan Porter who gave his opinion on the future of fast food.

He predicts such innovations as “the Autoburger,” a fast-food dispensary something like McDonald’s, but without human workers.

And the article ends with a mixed bag of good and bad predictions:

Marvin Cetron, a technological forecaster, looks at the year 2000 and predicts a 32-hour work week. “The only job a woman won’t be holding is Catholic priest,” he said.

Cetron said college students of the future will study enzyme research and genetic and robot engineering.

Here is the piece, via Tim Harford.  The broad lesson I think is that bets on computers were basically right, and will be for some time to come, and other bets are either obvious or stupid, in retrospect.

Comments

"Robot engineering" and "robot trainers"? So you mean electrical or mechanical engineering and programmers?

No, robot training is not exactly a job, but it is a task. With Baxters and other robots you can physically move their limbs through the tasks you want them to carry out and then they will (hopefully) do that on their own.

As you can imagine, it's hard to make a career out of it.

Predicting the future is hard.

“We are living in the future
I'll tell you how I know
I read it in the paper
Fifteen years ago
We're all driving rocket ships
And talking with our minds
And wearing turquoise jewelry
And standing in soup lines
We are standing in soup lines“

John Prine

"The best way to predict the future is to invent it."

- Alan Kay

Those predications aren't that bad. Even if some of the details are wrong, they are directionally about right.

Captchas were robot training, as is a lot of Mechanical Turk.

Are ZMP workers and common-sense morality "obvious or stupid"?

Predicting the future is never easy.
This from 1969
>>>
This lecture depicts the likely developments in telecommunications during the next half century. The main overland and submarine information highways will consist of wideband optical quadratic-law fibres with laser-type repeaters spaced just overt km apart. Local-area distribution will be based on narrower band glass fibres with a fibre information rate of the order of 300 megabits/sec as opposed to the 10 to 20 gigabits/sec per fibre on the main highway, Switching will use both time and space switches employing advanced optical techniques. The whole network will use digital techniques and lasers throughout. Holographic crystal stores using lasers for writing and reading will be located at strategic points. Standard subscriber's equipment will include video cameras and receivers, crystal stores, play-back devices, and terminals for communicating with computers, banks, shopping centres, etc. Mobile telephone services will be universal and will employ revolutionary techniques. Free space radio will be restricted almost entirely to mobile services. Pocket telephones and global personal telephone numbers will be commonplace. Information retrieval centres will replace central libraries. Aircraft and ships will employ earth satellites for communication and navigation on an extensive scale, while similar services to space vehicles in the solar system will be highly developed.
<<<
http://www.quantium.plus.com/ahr/southafrica.htm

It almost describes the Internet, but not quite! Even today, people don't realise that whereas synchronous voice telephony removes the tyranny of distance, but email also resolves the tyranny of time.

Also from the same time period--
"too much change in too short a period of time".--Future Shock: Alvin Toffler.
While I agree with Bill below, Toffler did get a few things right, although he talked about (post-industrial)society more than physical objects.

I think we better use the following sentence: Predicting the future is not possible.
Saying "predicting the future is never easy" gives some kind of feeling that altough it may be very challenging, but some predictions are more accurate than others. They are not, they are just hit 'n miss. What these old interviews always show me is that probably no correlation exists between the prediction and the predictor's knowledge/intelligence/academic level whatsover. I don't know if any such research exists, but I'd bet that Average Joes are just as good or bad at predicting the future as the quoted persons.
Maybe optimism plays a bigger role - I'd imagine trust in contemporary technologies is a major player in why these forecasts always show a pattern of rocket cars, Space discovery and shorter workhours that just never happen to realize.

"Predicting the future is not possible."

A couple days before Thanksgiving, I was in a Walmart maybe 15 miles outside of downtown Durham, NC. I happened to be in the electronics department, right next to the TVs...in fact, right in front of the new OLED TVs.

I tried to imagine what a person in that same exact location in November 1918 would think when transported to 2018. It would be insane!

The person would never have seen a TV...but likely wouldn't have even seen a black and white movie with sound, if that person lived well outside of downtown. The fluorescent lights would be amazing...and the building huge...and how could the building have even been heated without fireplaces??! Moving on, I came to dishwashing pods, paper towels and toilet paper. Again, a rural person outside Durham NC would probably never have seen a flush toilet. And then I came to ***all*** the turkeys and hams...completely prepared and completely frozen.

The idea that a person in 1918 would have been able to predict *any* of that, let alone a significant proportion of that, is just crazy. (And I'm not even talking about coming out to the asphalt parking lot, with the hundreds of automobiles in it.)

In 100 years, we will have machines which can translate spoken Latin into spoken English, so Catholics will be able to hold Mass in the Vernacular and Latin at the same time.

In 100 years we will no longer burn coal, but instead will burn synthetic fuels made in a lab.

In 100 years we will finally have the medical technology to determine paternity for children, and so adultery will become a thing of the past.

Way further back, but the Bennet House is still standing in Durham and i imagine that not much changed there from 1860-1918. Worth checking out if you have a few hours, and keep in mind these Durhamites were rich for their time.

In 1918 people did have furnaces, generally coal burning ones, so a large heated building without fireplaces was not unusual. Rural people did not have indoor plumbing, electricity, telephones or automobiles, but such things were known to exist and were becoming more common.

"In 1918 people did have furnaces, generally coal burning ones, so a large heated building without fireplaces was not unusual."

I was writing about 100,000+ square foot Walmart superstore. I'm pretty sure a person in rural NC circa 1918 would be *extremely* surprised to look around such a large building and see no visible heating source anywhere in the building (or fuel source inside or outside the building).

"Rural people did not have indoor plumbing, electricity, telephones or automobiles, but such things were known to exist and were becoming more common."

The things I referred to were big-screen TVs, toilet paper and paper towels, dishwashing pods, and massive quantities of frozen, completely prepared turkeys and hams.

"“It's tough to make predictions, especially about the future.”

Yogi Berra

"It's getting harder and harder to predict the past."

--post-Stalinist/late Soviet witticism on the era of "rehabilitation"

"And then, things got worse..."

"Sports law specialist" is a real job, but there are not that many of them. (The funny thing is, there were probably some, if fewer, in '88, too, so it's not really that much of a prediction.)

You are correct that there were some sports law specialists in 1988. I graduated law school in May 1987 and took a course in sports law my third year, so either Fall 1986 or Spring 1987. It was a big deal then and lots of us thought we might have a chance to represent athletes at some point. We were Crimson Tide lawyers, after all.

[Few of us ever became sports law specialists because that requires the right connections plus the right geographic practice area.]

As a hobby, one can also look at books written 20 to 30 years ago about the nature of competition between the US and Japan, future economic collapse from debt requiring a balanced budget, yada yada yada. I have some of those books in my basement if you are interested. They don't have much resale value, although the ideas are often recycled.

"He predicts such innovations as “the Autoburger,” a fast-food dispensary something like McDonald’s, but without human workers."

Would a futuristic 'autoburger' be anything like a futuristic automat?

No, we're not remotely close to having a futuristic autoburger if we mean robots performing all the current tasks of fast-food employees preparing various dishes. Robots are not close to matching the dexterity and flexibility of human workers. The ordering and payment processes may be automated, but automats and vending machines did that 100 years ago. And Amazon may open a chain of convenience stores without cashiers, but human workers will still be re-stocking the shelves.

Also -- a number of the predictions strike me as things that people were already doing by 1988 (online services like Compuserve were available by then). Predicting that women would be doing every job but Catholic priest was no stretch -- that was already the case. The major expansion in women's labor-force participation was already complete by then, and women undergrads already outnumbered their male counterparts. What jobs are women doing now that they weren't in 1988? Similarly, people were already studying genetics and robotics (the big boom in robots for auto manufacturers was during the 1980s).

I agree, the predictions seem to fall into the category of either obvious or stupid (and predicting the importance of computers was very much in the obvious category at that point).

McDonald's has been moving to automated ordering, reducing (albeit certainly not eliminating) its human staff. Upward pressure on the minimum wage seems likely to be a driver of such change.

Yes, higher-minimum wages may drive that change. But it could have been done decades ago if the financial pressures had been high enough. We don't need 21st century, AI-driven tech to enable customers to put money or a credit card into a kiosk and push buttons to make choices.

There is a pizzeria in Silicon Valley where robots make the pizza (very quickly) and the owner wants to start using driverless cars for delivery.

Boston Dynamics has a 165 lb. robot called Atlas that can stock shelves and carry boxes that are at least 10 lbs.

There is a pizzeria in Silicon Valley where robots make the pizza (very quickly)

The (rather huge) robot does a couple of most brainless steps in the process, while those that require vision, dexterity and judgement are done by humans:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lHCWKoeUImE

Boston Dynamics has a 165 lb. robot called Atlas that can stock shelves and carry boxes that are at least 10 lbs

Yep, we're almost there:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JzlsvFN_5HI

I can't imagine why Google/Alphabet dumped them.

Would a futuristic 'autoburger' be anything like a futuristic automat?

Yes, that was my first thought. I remember going to an automat in NYC when I was a kid living in CT in the early 1960s, and thinking it was very cool to put in a bunch of coins and get out a sandwich.

"No, we're not remotely close to having a futuristic autoburger if we mean robots performing all the current tasks of fast-food employees preparing various dishes. Robots are not close to matching the dexterity and flexibility of human workers."

As I commented on a previous post, it doesn't make sense to work on dexterity of a robot, if the brain of the thing is going to cost over a million dollars. It's only when the cost of a computer brain that can do what burger chefs do comes down to a couple years' salary of a burger chef that it makes sense to start concentrating on what the burger chefs' bodies can do.

If and when it comes, the dexterity will mostly be *in* the electronic brain (a dexterous robot hand is already a possibility -- as long as it's being operated by a human brain), and each copy, if it could be invented, wouldn't cost much. But flexible, dexterous robots are nowhere near inventable yet.

You also need humans to handle security and cystomers with unusual needs. There are already fast food places with automatic ordering and pay stations. But the counter help is still there to make sure people get the right order, and no one grabs good without paying.

Investing in machines is more predictable than investing in people because people are, inherently, unpredictable. I've watched podcasts of some very smart people discussing "mind uploading": transferring a human's consciousness to an artificial body so the consciousness can live forever. Have a nice forever. The problem presented is whose consciousness gets to live forever? Donald Trump's?

Who are we to judge whether President Trump or (say) a garden labourer is qualified for reanimation in the future? As the religious people (who has their ideas about post mortem survival) used to say, "Judge that ye be not judged". Leave that decision to the people who are doing the reanimation in the future, whether from cryopreservation or by transmitterless reception from the past. (Neither of these produce causality violations.)

"The problem presented is whose consciousness gets to live forever? Donald Trump's?"

If you can get one person's consciousness inside a robot body, why not 2 people...or 200, or 2 million?

>“The only job a woman won’t be holding is Catholic priest,”

Well, that and President of the United States.

It would be interesting to see a MR readers' list of technological innovation and societal change for 2050

"It would be interesting to see a MR readers' list of technological innovation and societal change for 2050."

1) I think Ray Kurzweil is approximately correct that the Singularity will happen approximately that year, so virtually nothing will be predictable...but:

2) Humanoid robots will be "the smartest person in the room." And there will be no question about this. In a room that contains a brain surgeon, a theoretical physicist, a computer scientist, a nuclear engineer, etc. etc., the humanoid robot will be able to stand in the middle of the room and hold simultaneous conversations with *all* of them (by sending answers to their earbuds with wifi), in each of their specialties, that will far, far above what they know. The humanoid robot will be to them what they would be when talking to child in kindergarten.

3) Because of item #2, there will be no human brain surgeons, theoretical physicists, computer scientists, nuclear engineers, etc. Computers/robots will be able to do all jobs with capabilities far beyond humans.

4) Per-capita gross world product (expressed in PPP) was approximately $17,000 in 2017. By 2050, it will be well beyond $200,000 expressed as 2017 dollars. A very important caveat on this...it will be necessary to properly account for the massive reduction in prices of most goods as computers take over jobs. For example, the robot brain surgeon will cost less than a human brain surgeon's annual salary, and will be able to work essentially 24/7. So the cost of brain surgery will plummet. If that is (improperly!) accounted for as a decline in GDP, it will appear that GDP goes down when the robot replaces the human.

5) Not a single person will die in an automobile accident in 2050. Interstate speeds will be well above 100 miles per hour, even on interstates within cities.

6) More than 90 percent of the brick-and-mortar Walmarts, Targets, Costcos, Walgreens, Krogers, Home Depots, etc. etc. will be closed or converted to some other use (e.g. as a completely automated warehouse, distributing goods by comptuer-driven vehicles).

6) Computer-flown vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL) aircraft will provide as many passenger miles inside the continental United States as aircraft that take off and land from runways. Most of the VTOL aircraft will operate from simple parking lots (not airports with terminals).

6) ....OR...there will have been a takeover by terminators, or a global nuclear or biological war, and all the first five predictions are withdrawn.

P.S. Computers will be able to edit lists so that a commenter on a blog doesn't have three #6's in his comments! (The elimination of brick-and-mortar stores seemed like a particularly important aspect of technology and society. I don't know what will happen to all the people presently employed in those stores. And I don't know what will happen to the governments relying on those stores for property tax revenue.)

There is an absolute social need for brick and mortar storefronts in a complex society. A use will be found.

Ray Kurzweil's argument is that virtual reality will be so realistic by 2040, after ten years of swallowing nanobots that will swarm the brain, that human interaction without the VR interface will be rare for business interactions.

Kurzweil told Newsweek in 2007 that the nanobots in the brain transition will begin around 2027.

What has Ray Kurzweil ever done or predicted that makes this appeal to authority at all relevant or useful? Has he ever predicted anything that actually happened near the time he said it would?

"What has Ray Kurzweil ever done or predicted that makes this appeal to authority at all relevant or useful? Has he ever predicted anything that actually happened near the time he said it would?"

I don't view my quoting Ray Kurzweil--such as quoting his estimate of a Singularity circa 2050--as being an "appeal to authority." I quote Kurzweil on a Singularity circa 2050 because I've read his books, which contain incredibly extensive traces of trends in technologies relevant AI--e.g., processor speed per unit of money, memory per unit of money, artificial vision per unit of money, software development per unit of money--and his extrapolation of those trends into the future seems very plausible to me.

So when Ray Kurzweil writes that circa 2050, a $1000 computer will be able to perform more calculations per second than all 7+ billion people on the planet, I think, "Damn! That's a lot of calculations per second!"

And I also can see that even if Ray Kurzweil is off by a factor of ***ONE BILLION*** (!)...in 2050, a $1000 computer would still be capable of more calculations per second than 7+ humans. And I would still say, "Damn! That's a lot of calculations per second (for very little money)!" So even if he's off by a factor of one billion, I think essentially everything else I predicted will still come true (e.g. computers will be able to do virtually any job better than a human, computers will cut automobile deaths in the United States to zero, all brick-and-mortar stores will disappear or be converted to something else, etc.)

The first "car", called a "charette", was made in 1807. It was virtually undriveable, and if someone then said the world would be full of its successors in hundreds of years he would probably have been regarded as a lunatic.
Jay Leno compares electric cars over 100 years on
https://youtu.be/CRwEXaHTwsY
The speculation is what would have happened if the industry had continued to develop these instead of going over to combustion engined cars.

"In 1813 de Rivaz built a much larger experimental vehicle he called the grand char mécanique. This was 6 meters long, equipped with wheels of two meters in diameter and weighed almost a ton. The cylinder was 1.5 meters long and the piston had a stroke of 97 cm...."

"Few of his contemporaries took his work seriously. The French Academy of Sciences argued that the internal combustion engine would never rival the performance of the steam engine.[1]"

Oops! That prediction failed pretty badly.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/De_Rivaz_engine

Jeepers, soothsayers have to do their soothsaying. Jesus according to the Gospel of Matthew (6:34): Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.

I made a prediction in 1996 out of self-interest. I was approaching the point where I could translate Japanese into English on the side and thought about how long that would be possible before machine translation took over. I had used the internet for about half a year when it occurred to me machine translation would be statistical and quite good for Spanish, German and French into English by 2007 as computer power would be 1000 times greater and the content of the internet to match words and phrases wold mushroom.

I then said translators of those languages would begin to lose their jobs from 2009 and only literary translation would be left from 2015. Japanese grammar is much further from English than French, so a five year lag with that language pair. A German translator heard me explain this to a friend in a small computer lab and was mad: "You are a complete idiot! Computers will never think so never translate." I tried to explain compters wouldn't have to think and there would be some editing for a much lower wage.

In 2002, a friend who translates Japanese wanted me to put a specific year on Japanese>English MT so eventually told him "not before 2008 but translators will work on literature from 2015 and there will be editing for technical documents." He insisted not before 2030.

I've been called crazy by a *lot* of translators in the past 20 years, although one J>E translator with a computer science background predicted in 1998 that human translation for J>E will be over by 2003, which I thought was way too fast. The improvements in machine translation for Japanese into English have been interesting to watch, from zero accuracy in 2003 to getting some very easy news stories partly correct with the earliest Google Translate in 2008 to much better GT by 2014 and the neural net improvements of late 2016. Translators *still* insist they will keep doing their job at the same pay for another 25 to 50 years.

A few weeks ago, a friend in Tokyo told me that his company's new J>E MT is now 90% accurate for financial reports. My 1996 and 2002 predictions were off by a few years but not by decades an in some cases centuries that 95 percent of translators have been insisting.

I think that relying on AI to do most of our work will be the way of the future but that doesn't necessarily mean that we would be out of jobs. According to Schumpeter's idea of creative destruction, new innovations causes changes in the market and make older methods obsolete. New market will create opportunities for different types of specialization and division of labor. When more and more jobs are replaced with AI, other jobs will be created like the "robot trainers" and other more creative jobs. And because most jobs would be automated, perhaps one day our work hours would decrease to 15 hours a week as predicted (a bit prematurely) by Keynes. In his essay, "Economic Possibilities for Our Grandchildren, he writes the following:
"The pace at which we can reach our destination of economic bliss will be governed by four things — our power to control population, our determination to avoid wars and civil dissensions, our willingness to entrust to science the direction of those matters which are properly the concern of science, and the rate of accumulation as fixed by the margin between our production and our consumption; of which the last will easily look after itself, given the first three.
Meanwhile there will be no harm in making mild preparations for our destiny, in encouraging, and experimenting in, the arts of life as well as the activities of purpose."
Trusting science and following its course, we will get closer to "economic bliss" and enjoy "the arts of life."

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