What Skills Will Thrive in the Fourth Industrial Revolution?

According to the World Economic Forum, we’re now living in the Fourth Industrial Revolution. Not unlike the first three, the Fourth Industrial revolution is changing the way we work—except instead of steam power or assembly-line manufacturing, the technological advancements are digital in nature. Many believe these new digital technologies will increase economic inequality and make many careers obsolete. After all, how can a person possibly compete with a more efficient, more reliable machine?

The answer is much more nuanced and distinctly less dystopian than one might initially think. Though technology is shaping the future of work, it’s not eliminating the need for humans just yet. Instead, it’s changing the skillset needed to participate in the labor force. Here’s a breakdown of some common roles that may soon be obsolete—and what skills will be at the forefront of the digital revolution.

Automated: service jobs like fast-food cashiers and cab drivers

In 2016, McDonald’s announced that it will install self-service kiosks ordering kiosks in every one of its US locations. And with self-driving cars (and hyperloops!) almost visible on the tech horizon, traditional taxi and Uber drivers alike may soon go the way of the dodo. Service roles represent a declining share of the labor force.

Needed: UX design and digital maintenance

If you already take automated touch-screen ordering for granted, stop for a moment and think about all the behind-the-scenes work that goes into making the experience seamless. To create any given piece of technology—whether the end user is the average consumer or a highly specialized professional like a doctor—there are a million design questions that must be answered first. What is the user experience (UX) like? How does the technology present available options? Is it easy to navigate, even for first-time users? Is it easily fixable when it breaks or does it require specialized troubleshooting? Who will troubleshoot it? The architects of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, UX designers are a burgeoning profession. Somewhere between a developer and a traditional designer, they’re responsible for making technology truly useful by making it useable.

UX designers are the architects of the Fourth Industrial Revolution. Click To Tweet

Similarly, an increase in tech means new careers centered around maintaining that tech. Even the digital can break: apps have bugs, touchscreens can shatter, and code is notoriously brittle. The skills required to solve digital problems continue to be in high demand.

Automated: administrative tasks like data entry, scheduling, and accounting

In the brave new era of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, almost every company seeks digital transformation: a ground-up rebuilding of their business operations to be digital, rather than analog. Many businesses have already shifted to using cloud apps for their business processes, for example; from scheduling to taking dictation and beyond, there’s likely an app for that. If you’re even slightly tech-savvy, chances are you’ve used consumerized software to file your taxes. You can even automatically move data between your apps, eliminating the need for a lot of manual data entry.

Needed: application administration and integration management

Many enterprise-grade apps are complex enough that they need dedicated administrators like Salesforce admins to make everything run smoothly and get the most out of the tool. Similarly, adopting emerging technology like artificial intelligence (AI) has led to the creation of roles devoted to managing that technology.

And as businesses adopt multiple apps, they must also cope with an unintended consequence: multiple “places” where tasks are accomplished or data is stored. To truly automate business processes, those apps need to be tied together through integration. Constructing automated workflows requires a skill set that combines logical reasoning with a thorough understanding of a business’s unique needs. You also need proficiency in an integration platform like Workato so you can actually implement those workflows. There’s room for many jobs here: someone to build integrations on your platform, someone to oversee the automations that lines-of-business users create, and so on.

Automated: certain white-collar tasks like document review and medical diagnostics

If you think white-collar professions are immune to the Fourth Industrial Revolution, you’re not entirely correct. Automation will likely replace many lower-level white-collar workers like junior lawyers who have traditionally handled repetitive tasks like document review and legal research.

But automation won’t just affect less senior employees; in an interview with the American Bar Association, attorney Britt Lorish posits that advancements such as AI can dramatically change entire subsets of legal practice like arbitration. “The concept of online dispute resolution (ODR) and eMediation is incredibly interesting, I think, as it could certainly revolutionize the amount of time and costs spent to resolve disputes,” he says. “AI being used in conjunction with this to retrieve relevant court decisions I find pretty fascinating.”

Likewise, researchers have also trained a neural net to diagnose melanoma, a form of skin cancer. Training a dermatologist to recognize melanoma is an arduous task; beyond attending med school, they will learn from each subsequent patient they evaluate. A high-ranking skin doctor might see 200,000 patients over their career, but a neural net can “see” (and learn from) 130,000 cases in three months.

Needed: higher-order thinking, creativity, and empathy

While AI is fairly advanced, it’s not as smart as many think. Dennis R. Mortensen, founder and CEO of x.ai, explains that currently, AI is only good at functioning in limited contexts. “It’s true that AI is getting better at tackling complex problems, but it’s equally true that AI is still not very good at doing many of the things associated with human jobs,” he says. “AIs have gotten pretty good at a believable facsimile of humanity in tightly controlled situations—like scheduling meetings. But a general-purpose AI that truly understands you and can respond with creativity and empathy, like the android Ava from Ex Machina? Not so much.”

From a job skills perspective, workers should focus on developing skills that are still out of reach for AI. “AI isn’t very good at jobs that require creativity, empathy, critical thinking, leadership, artistic expression, and a whole host of other qualities we traditionally think of as ‘human,’” Mortensen adds.

For example, while technology alleviates many rote medical tasks—like examining a patient’s skin, eliminating possible ailments, and making an accurate diagnosis—it cannot provide what patients want most: empathy and explanation. What makes a good nurse, doctor, or lawyer? The ability to connect on a fundamentally human level is paramount. Machines cannot yet offer convincingly human reassurance. Almost equally important is the ability to communicate with clients or patients why something is happening. Geoffrey Hinton, a computer scientist at the University of Toronto, notes that even the most advanced AI cannot yet explain the cause of an ailment or problem. “A deep-learning system doesn’t have any explanatory power,” he says.

Welcoming the Fourth Industrial Revolutions and the Future of Work

Box CEO Aaron Levie recently tweeted that “AI can seem dystopian because it’s easier to describe existing jobs disappearing than to imagine industries that never existed appearing.” And he’s right. Finding your way through the changing professional world can feel intimidating, especially for those who work in more traditional industries.

But the future of work is brimming with potential. The key to success? Finding opportunities to build your digital literacy. From learning to code to building a working integration, there are plenty of avenues to hone your tech skills without going back to school.

Thoroughly prepare yourself for the Fourth Industrial Revolution by subscribing to our bi-weekly newsletter, re:blog. Tech news and the resources you need to digitally transform your business, straight to your inbox. Subscribe >