Will Programmers Have a Job in the Future?
Or will AI take them too?
May 15, 2019, Bruno Jacobson
We've ushered into the age of technology, and if programming was considered in the 60s and 70s a "geek activity," today it has become one of the most respectable, high-paying jobs one could get. It is also a sector that is rapidly evolving, and almost everything that has recently been associated with progress has also been associated with programming. That's great. But programmers are no less susceptible than everyone else when it comes to losing their jobs. In this article, we ask the question, "will programmers still have a job in the future?"
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Will Programmers Have a Job in the Future?
According to EDC, there are 23 million software developers in the world. By 2023, that number is expected to grow to 27.7 million. According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, between 2016 and 2026, the number of software engineers is expected to grow at a rate of 24% - much faster than any other occupation in the country. When you look at these statistics, one would assume there is nothing to worry about.
However, some are worried that programming, just like any other job, is at a risk to be made obsolete in the future. The main argument given is usually that of AI and automation: What if AI can program other things or itself? What if we can automate much of the same code programmers now do? In a way, the worry is somewhat understandable. We need only to look at companies such as Wix and SquareSpace, which allow anyone to design and "build" a website without ever having to learn HTML and CSS. That's right - today, if you want to build a website by yourself, at home, you can do it.
Though these worries have some footing, there are plenty of reasons to put them aside for the time being.
Firstly, we have been automating things for a long time, and yet, if anything, demand for software engineers has only increased. Taking into account website programming, with HTML and CSS, it is true that we have been able to automate some of it. But, for one, these services can't really be said to be replacing anyone who would have otherwise built the website themselves. Most people benefiting from these are bloggers, online sellers, and so on, not programmers. On top of that, while these services are good, there is a lot of custom functionality, of the kind you might see on Facebook, that comes from years of iterating and improving the code. That must be done by people that understand the product, the customers, and, at least for now, people that can code.
Secondly, though AI is becoming more and more powerful, someone still needs to program that AI. While things such as machine learning seem magical, as if the AI were programming itself, they would be nothing without people working on the algorithms - inventing them, improving them, refining them. In fact, Google alone now employs around 30,000 people to work on their various AI platforms.
Finally, the advent of new technologies such as IoT, self-driving vehicles, virtual reality, etc., all presents a new set of challenges that require software engineers, IT specialists, system engineers, and many other field professionals to work on them. Unless we have an all-powerful AI, it will take a long time until it understands all the complexities around various emergent technologies and is able to successfully address their challenges.
That is not to say, of course, that AI will definitely not replace programmers in the future. Artificial intelligence can already code, and it is bound to continue replacing mundane coding tasks, just like technology has replaced several human tasks over the past few centuries, and increasingly more over the last few decades. Nevertheless, for "programmers to become obsolete" would require a much more advanced artificial intelligence, or intelligences. And it is entirely possible that, by then, we might be asking this same question about every single profession on Earth.
In the near future, however, it looks like software engineers won't be running out of jobs. The code may change, languages may change, and the challenges may change. But the empathy needed to understand what features human beings want to see is yet a human quality. And with the demand for software engineers increasing at least for the foreseeable future, if you are planning to make a career in it, bets are it's a safe - and good - choice.
This piece is inspired by the work done by Futures Platform futurist's team. In the phenomenon card titled "AI That Writes Itself", the team explains in details the concept of Deepcoder - an AI software that writes code by copying existing segments that it can find, and potentially can replace human coding labour.
The team also gives a preliminary assessment of the impact of software like Deepcoder on the future. At the moment, the phenomenon is identified as "Weak Signal" - which means that there are signs of a new emerging trend that might have a substantial impact on the future but is ignored by the mainstream audience.
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