AI and robots could threaten your career within 5 years

Robots are the real reason why jobs in America are disappearing
Robots are the real reason why jobs in America are disappearing

Unlike Tesla and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk, who warns of the dangers of artificial intelligence, Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates doesn't believe the new technology is anything that should cause panic.

"This is a case where Elon and I disagree," says Gates in an interview with the Wall Street Journal and Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella.

But "Workforce of the Future," a report released in September by PwC, doesn't do much to support the Microsoft billionaire's case. The report, which examines research as well as a survey of 10,000 people, has some troubling implications.

Chief among them: "Typical" careers, in which a person advances through the ranks of a particular field, will increasingly "cease to exist" as artificial intelligence and robots replace more human workers over the next few decades. Humans, it says, will have to become more comfortable learning new skills and making career transitions.

"The displacement is already beginning to happen," Jeff Hesse, PwC principal and U.S. people and organization co-leader, tells CNBC Make It.

Photo by VCG

As MarketWatch points out, a national Pew poll confirms that the biggest cause of job loss in the U.S. is technology. A 2013 Oxford University study estimates that 47 percent of U.S. jobs could be replaced by robots and automated technology within the next two decades.

"It varies a bit by industry," Hesse says, "but over the next five years we're going to see the need for workers to change their skills at an accelerating pace."

How to prepare for the future 

One trend many workers will be impacted by is robotics process automation (RPA), which automates manual tasks done by humans on computers.

"Those workers that do tasks that can automate by RPA will need to learn and take on new skills," Hesse says, citing examples such as learning how to manage automatic software programs.

SoftBank Group Corp.'s Pepper the humanoid robot performs during a demonstration at a media briefing in Tokyo, Japan, on Thursday, May 19, 2016.
Kiyoshi Ota | Bloomberg | Getty Images

Hesse suggests people research what skills will be in-demand in their field.

Gates says workers with skills in science, engineering and economics will soon be the most sought after. Alibaba founder and e-commerce titan Jack Ma thinks more companies will be looking for people with expertise in data analysis and collection in the future. Eric Schmidt, executive chairman of Google's parent company Alphabet, also believes data skills will be in-demand moving forward.

Of course, learning new skills doesn't necessarily mean going back to school for a degree. The Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, for example, reports that there are millions of well-compensated jobs with projected job growth available for those without a bachelor's.

According to the Georgetown report, community colleges and reputable trade schools that provide vocational programs will help more people find work in the future.

More companies will also probably start having more internal training and recruiting programs to help employees at risk of losing their jobs to new technology, Hesse says.

According to PwC, "re-tooling," or learning new skills, "will become the norm."

People seem to understand, at least partly, what the future will hold.

Some 60 percent of the report's 10,000 respondents think that "few people will have stable, long-term employment in the future." And the overwhelming majority of those who participated in the survey, about 75 percent, believe it's their own responsibility to update their skills, rather than rely on their employer's.

Still, many say they'll need help. Some 56 percent of respondents think governments should take any action needed to protect jobs from automation. The report also mentions the possibility of universal basic income, or cash payments from governments.

"Will we get to that point? I don't know," Hesse says, "but I think the future of work is going to create some really challenging question for us to deal with."

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Elon Musk: Robots will take your jobs, government will have to pay your wage
Elon Musk: Robots will take your jobs, government will have to pay your wage