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The skill that will survive automation, by Livia Gershon (from BBC Capital)

Robots are poised to replace workers in many industries. But some professions can never be automated away, and require investment, writes Livia Gershon.

Disruptive technologies such as artificial intelligence and big data are changing the world of work. Retail jobs are disappearing in the US while the online sellers supplanting them fill their warehouses with robots instead of human workers. In China, manufacturing businesses that fled wealthy countries to find low-wage workers are now replacing those humans with machines. And on farms around the world, automated systems are beginning to take on backbreaking tasks like weeding lettuce. Studies have found that new technologies threaten around 40% of existing US jobs, and two-thirds of jobs in the developing world.

There is one kind of job though, that is both indispensable and difficult – perhaps impossible – to automate: the kind that requires emotional skills. Artificially intelligent software is being built that can recognise emotions in people's faces and voices, but it is a long way from simulating genuine empathy, and philosophers have been arguing for centuries that a machine with real feelings is impossible. Computers are nowhere near being able to compete with humans on the ability to really understand and connect with another human being.

If these jobs can’t be automated, and will continue to be necessary into the future, workers with emotional skills will be highly in demand in the coming decades. But, right now, the jobs that depend most on these skills are often badly compensated: a Business Insider poll put childcare workers and high school teachers in a list of the top ten most underpaid professions.

Emotional skills include all the abilities that let us recognise and respond appropriately to emotional states in ourselves and others. They’re a ubiquitous, yet largely invisible, part of a huge and perhaps surprising array of jobs. It’s the supermarket cashier pleasantly asking how you’re doing. It’s a supervisor correcting a subordinate’s mistake while making sure he still feels valued and capable. It’s a salesman watching a potential customer’s face to see if she’s sceptical about his pitch.

As robots come for our routine jobs, the ability to work well with others is becoming a key to success at work. A 2016 World Bank review of 27 studies of employers found that 79% of them ranked a socio-emotional skill such as honesty or the ability to work within a team as the most important qualification for workers. (Continue reading)


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