Job security in the 21st century

Orley Ashenfelter, a Princeton economist, was also a connoisseur of wine. Based on the knowledge that that wine quality depended on sunny summers and wet springs, Ashenfelter used three parameters – the average temperature during summer, the rainfall during the harvest and the total rainfall during the previous winter to create a simple formula that predicts the price of wine at a particular age. The results? His predictions correlated with actual prices to the tune of 0.90 – a higher accuracy than most wine experts with years of training, tasting and not cleaning their tongues.

Even in the previous century, people such as Ashenfelter came up with simple formulas that replaced complex human judgement. Today, we have the technology to integrate these formulas into machines, distribute them on a network and put them on a positive feedback loop so that they improve every day – all for a fraction of the price it would take to train one expert.

This brings us to job security in the 21st century. If your job involves diagnosis or prediction that rely on a fixed set of factors, you are likely to be replaced by a machine. It doesn’t matter how many years of practice and training it took for you to achieve this expertise – those years only produce an illusion of complexity. However, the job of a sommelier – a professional wine taster at fine dining restaurants, is still not obsolete. Because along with being an expert on the quality of wines, a sommelier is a performer who makes a human connection.

The irony of jobs in the 21st century is that diagnosticians who are jerks, even brilliant ones like Dr. House, would be replaced by a formula, while an empathetic and caring nurse in the same hospital might retain his job.

Inspiration: Thinking, Fast and Slow – Daniel Kahneman

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