Malcolm Gladwell: This is how you can stay relevant when AI threatens your job

Malcolm Gladwell speaks onstage during OZY FEST 2017
Bryan Bedder | Getty Images

Bestselling author Malcolm Gladwell says that as artificial intelligence infiltrates the workforce and robots start taking jobs, there is one clear way to make sure you stay relevant: "Be good at the things that the machine is not."

Overall, he says, "I'm not an alarmist about A.I. I happen to think that there are so many things that we need people to do that are not being done right now," he tells organizational psychologist Adam Grant in the latest TED podcast episode of "WorkLife with Adam Grant."

"Most of it involves communicating with them and empathizing with them and helping them out," Gladwell says. "Some displacement in some areas is not the end of the world."

Most Americans seem to agree with Gladwell. About half of U.S. workers aren't worried about robots eliminating their jobs within the next five or 20 years, according to a 2017 Gallup poll.

A.I. is expected to put 10 million U.S. service and warehouse jobs at high risk of displacement within the next five to 10 years, according to research firm CB Insights. But Americans aren't too concerned about employment setbacks like having their jobs outsourced or being laid off.

Gladwell has one main question about the role A.I. will play in eradicating jobs, though: "Are blue-collar jobs the ones that are going to get replaced by A.I. or are white-collar jobs the ones that are going to get replaced by A.I.?"

He adds that he keeps "hearing really interesting predictions that focus more on the displacement of cognitively complex" jobs, and he gives the example of driverless trucks. "Autonomous vehicles don't put truck drivers out of work because truck drivers do a lot more than drive trucks," Gladwell says. "They do a whole bunch of personal tasks that require a person."

While A.I. handles "the actual driving part," Gladwell adds, "you still need the human to check on the cargo" and "make sure the truck is working properly."

White-collar jobs in fields such as law, on the other hand, actually may be in more danger. "Lawyers doing document search, you know, that seems to be really straightforward for A.I.," Gladwell says.

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Renowned Chinese technologist and investor Kai-Fu Lee, a veteran of Google, Apple and Microsoft agrees, telling CNBC that "white collar jobs are easier to take because they're pure a quantitative analytical process."

"To do blue collar, some of work requires hand-eye coordination, things that machines are not yet good enough to do," Lee adds.

Although some tech moguls like Elon Musk fear the impact of automation, others, such as Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, billionaire investor Mark Cuban and former Google exec Eric Schmidt, are, like Malcolm Gladwell, generally more optimistic that A.I. can coexist with humans in the workforce.

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