What’s Scarce?

I’m reading a book about the automation of jobs, called Only Humans Need Apply: Winners and Losers in the Age of Smart Machines. The book argues that high-skilled roles held by “knowledge workers” are as vulnerable to automation as low-skilled ones. The authors point to radiology and law as two professions where machines are replacing the work of physicians and lawyers. In the case of radiology, machines can now read x-rays and make accurate diagnoses. In law, the process of discovery, where attorneys pore over documents in search of information that might be crucial to a case, can now be handled by machine scanners.

If automation can turn the skills of physicians and lawyers into commodities, then what skills will have scarcity value in the future? Radiology was once one of the highest paid medical professions, but machines have eroded the scarcity value of a radiologist’s extensive training and expertise.

What, then, will remain scarce in the automated economy? Below is my list. I think these things are already scarce, and will become only more so.

  1. Insight
  2. Attention
  3. Creativity
  4. Vision
  5. Inspiration
  6. Contemplation
  7. Care
  8. Meaningful networks
  9. Humanity

If tomorrow’s knowledge worker can weave any of these attributes into her work, or produce goods and services that increase the supply of these 9 things, then I believe her output will be less vulnerable to the forces of automation.