5 Amazing Future Jobs You Won’t Believe Your Kids Will Do
The future is very hard to predict, unless you like being wrong a lot. Our children will imagine, build, and ultimately live in the murky, amorphous, muddy puddle of time we call the future. Here are five ways they can make it great.
This is not a list of “best jobs in America” or “future jobs that don’t exist but might someday if we ever get jetpacks and flying cars”. These are real jobs. Actually, they’re more than jobs, they’re fields of research full of paths and possibilities. We think that if your kids decide to head into one of these fields, they have a very good chance of building an awesome future for themselves and everyone else.
1. Materials Engineering
Did you know that everything is made of stuff? Well, ideas aren’t made of stuff, but ideas are created by people, and people are made of stuff. We are stuff thinking about other stuff. That’s weird. Anyway, it turns out that stuff is important.
We use stuff (elements, minerals, and hydrocarbons) to make other stuff (glass and ceramics, metals and alloys, plastics, etc.). And then we turn that stuff into even more stuff (homes, windows, cars, computers, smartphones, coffee mugs, satellites, animatronic, singing fish). We’re very clever.
Every material has a set of properties that make it useful for certain things but not others. For example, brick is a type of ceramic. Brick is very strong, but like a lot of ceramics, it doesn’t bend very well. Try folding a dinner plate, and you’ll see what I mean. Anyway, brick is a wonderful building material. A house made of bricks is strong and sturdy. A fishing rod made of bricks would be a disaster. Brick is also a fantastic insulator. Brick doesn’t conduct heat or electricity very well, which means that brick is a great material for a fireplace. However, replacing all the copper wire in your home with bricks would be a terrible idea.
But what if bricks were strong and flexible and conducted electricity really well? Then we’d have an awesome new building material that might change the way we live. That’s what Materials Engineers do. Materials Engineering is a combination of chemistry, physics, and engineering. Materials engineers design and develop new materials with new properties that can be used in ways that ordinary stuff can’t.
Materials Engineering is wide-open field and there are lots of ways to go. Ceramics Engineers create new ceramics and new ways to make them. Composites Engineers develop new materials like carbon fiber. Metallurgical Engineers develop new metals and special alloys with incredible properties that ordinary metals don’t have. Plastic Engineers develop new kinds of plastics. Semiconductor Engineers develop new materials for computers, sensors, and other things.
Materials Engineers also study why and how things break or fail. Rust, for example, is a huge problem. Rust costs hundreds of lives and billions of dollars each year. A materials engineer who solved the rust problem would make a staggeringly huge contribution to the world.
Other crazy, wonderful things that materials engineers are working on include: superalloys, quantum dots, metamaterials (materials that are invisible to light), nanomaterials, and biomaterials.
Once upon a time (the 1950s and 60s), Norman Borlaug, who as far as we know was not from the planet Krypton, saved the lives of at least a billion people, probably more. A biologist by training and a very smart and tenacious person by nature (or nurture, we’re not solving any philosophical puzzles here today), Borlaug developed new varieties of high-yield, disease and drought resistant wheat. He planted his new varieties of wheat in Mexico, India, and Pakistan where it flourished, effectively ending some very long and horrible famines. Norman Borlaug was a Biotechnologist.
Biotechnology is really just using a living thing or system to make something new. It’s a lot more complicated than that obviously, but biotechnology has been around ever since people figured out how to use microorganisms to make beer, bread, cheese, yogurt, kimchi, and other foods that require fermentation. Of course, it wasn’t called biotechnology back then.
Today, biotechnology means a lot of things. Biotechnologists can manipulate bacteria to produce new drugs and therapies like antibiotics and insulin. There is a new field called Pharmacogenomics, which allows pharmaceutical companies to tailor drugs to individual people based on their genetic profile.
Right now people can manipulate algae to produce biofuels similar to gasoline, and one day this process might completely replace drilling for oil. There is a new field of biorobotics, robots with real neurons for a brain instead of microchips. Genetics and stem cell research easily fall into the category of biotechnology. And, of course, there are the genetically modified crops like the kind that Norman Borlaug developed that can literally save billions of lives.
These are just some of the ways biotechnologists are building the future. Your kids might one day save a billion people. That would be pretty cool. No pressure or anything.
Energy is a big deal. You probably enjoy light, heat, information, and entertainment. We do too. We all need energy. We use a lot of it, and we’ll use a lot more of it in the future.
The fun part about energy right now is that we mostly have to burn stuff like coal, gasoline, and natural gas. The really awesome part of burning hydrocarbons is that we’re literally changing the Earth’s climate! Oh, wait. That’s not a good thing. Still, the best time to plant a tree is forty years ago and the second best time to plant a tree is today. Also, we need to plant more trees.
So the future needs people who are able to find new, clean ways to generate a tremendous amount of energy.
Solar Power is just around the corner. Actually, it has been just around the corner for years, but it’s finally to a point where the only thing standing in the way is, well, us. The good news is even though Wisconsin has the best weather on Earth (warmth and sunshine all year long!), solar power is now a viable option for people who live in colder, cloudier climates like Illinois. The sun gives off more energy in an hour and a half than humans use in a year, so there’s lots of available energy. New energy storage technology (smart batteries!) will also make a huge difference in the near future.
Nuclear Power (fission) works really well. It’s safe. It’s clean. The technology is already here. So why don’t we have more nuclear power plants? Fear. Lots of people are very afraid of nuclear power. Is nuclear power dangerous? It can be, yes, but that’s what makes it’s so safe. Nuclear engineers thoroughly understand the challenges of nuclear power, and nuclear power plants are some of the most redundantly safe places ever designed. Nuclear power is very safe.
Nuclear Fusion is one of those technologies that’s always 20 years away. The challenge of nuclear fusion is that you essentially have to create a small sun and then keep your small sun in some kind of container. Creating a small sun is, oddly enough, the easy part. Keeping the small sun in something has been, um, a challenge.
The materials needed for nuclear fusion, however, are cheap, readily available, and you can get a whole lot of energy out of them. Fusion power is efficient and even safer than nuclear fission (which is really safe). And it is still about 10-20 years away.
Wind Power is pretty cool. Not everyone likes the way wind farms look. We do, but we’re not everybody. Wind farms do kill birds, but ordinary house cats kill thousands of times more birds than wind farms ever would. If that happens to be one of your arguments against wind farms (assuming you are against wind farms, which is an unfair assumption), keep your cat indoors (assuming you own a cat and let it outdoors, which is also an unfair assumption).
There are a few problems with wind power. Wind farms are materials-intensive. It takes a lot of steel and concrete to build them. However, the main problem with wind power is that the wind doesn’t always blow when you need it to. Still, with an intelligent grid and cool new energy storage solutions (opportunities right there, future engineers), wind power is a very viable option for the immediate future.
The Arc Reactor is safe, small, and generates a tremendous amount of clean energy. It might one day power the entire world and allow us to explore the Universe. It’s also completely fictional… like dilithium crystals, hypermatter, and tylium ore (bonus nerd points if you recognize that last one). The Arc Reactor is the thing that powers Tony Stark’s Iron Man suits. Your kids probably aren’t billionaire, philanthropist superheroes like Tony Stark, but at least they’re real. Tell ‘em that if they actually invent the Arc Reactor, they can be Iron Man or Iron Woman. In reality, they will have solved the world’s energy problems, which is better.
There are other sources of energy – geothermal and tidal among others. In Portland, a company is installing turbines inside sewer pipes and harnessing the power of flowing water. Interesting idea.
There’s no single energy technology (except maybe the arc reactor) that will allow us to meet all of our energy needs. We use a lot of energy, and we’re going to need a lot of different sources, including fusion, to completely replace the energy we generate from burning coal, gas, and oil. These energy solutions tend to work in some places better than others. Wind power might be great off the coast of Scotland (it’s very windy off the coast of Scotland), and solar power might be perfect in Arizona and California. Also, we’ll have to get serious about doing more with less, but it’s possible to do that in a way that most people won’t even notice (more opportunities here, too).
4. Aerospace Engineering
This one is pretty obvious. As aerospace engineers, your kids would design the next generations of airplanes, rockets, and spacecraft (missions to Mars and beyond, please), and all the pieces and parts that go into them. Right now NASA is working on a kind of warp drive. No, really.
5. Artificial Intelligence
Humans aren’t the only intelligent creatures on Earth. We are, however, the only creatures on Earth that have ever made intelligent, non-living things. We make intelligent, living things all the time, but apparently that’s not good enough. We have to go ahead and make smart dishwashers.
Compared to us, computers and robots are not all that smart. Well, they used to be not all that smart, but we are making them smarter. Right now, the smartest computers in the world are at about the level of a four-year old who is lightning fast with math but not so great with language and abstract ideas. Your smart dishwasher is not as smart as a four-year old, though it might be hilarious if it was.
Artificial Intelligence is a lot more than talking computers and robots. It is a huge field within Computer Science that includes things like machine learning, computational creativity, and general intelligence.
What is Artificial Intelligence? That depends. If you think that Artificial Intelligence is a robot who can have a human-level conversation with you while cooking dinner and planning your child’s eighth birthday party, then AI has a long way to go.
In reality, a chess-playing computer that can calculate all the possible permutations of the game and beat a chess grandmaster is one kind of AI. A thermostat that senses when you’re home and adjust itself accordingly is another. The computer (stacks of computers and a lot of very clever programming) that beat Ken Jennings at “Jeopardy” is yet another. By the way, Watson is now a pretty good medical diagnostician.
Artificial Intelligence isn’t all that new. There have been robots in factories for a very long time. Mostly robotic arms (very few robotic legs). NASA put robotic rovers on Mars that are part autonomous and part remote control. Right now there are fully autonomous submersibles exploring the oceans. Google’s search engine is a kind of artificial intelligence as are the computers that autonomously trade most of the stocks on Wall Street. Engineers are even starting to give prosthetic limbs designed for amputees a certain amount of intelligence.
If any of this sounds nightmarishly terrifying, that’s because we’ve been programmed (ha!) by movies like 2001: A Space Odyssey, The Terminator, The Matrix, Avengers: Age of Ultron, and I Robot to be afraid of AI. Should we be afraid of Artificial Intelligence? No. Should we be concerned about Artificial Intelligence? Probably, but fear and concern are different.
Most very smart people who are concerned about AI (Stephen Hawking, for example) are worried about what might happen when the machines become smarter than we are. And not just a bit smarter, thousands of times smarter. The fear is that the machines will be able to manipulate reality in ways that we can’t even begin to understand. If that happens (a very big if), then the world will become unrecognizable to us, if we’re even around to attempt to recognize it.
Regardless, future machines will have some ability to interact with the world, make decisions, and learn. Some day you will have a conversation with a toothbrush. Based on that interaction, your toothbrush might suggest different teeth-cleaning strategies. Your toothbrush might decide that you need to make an appointment with the dentist and then schedule it for you. It might realize that you’re running out of toothpaste, contact a giant on-line retailer, and automatically order more without even bothering to ask you. It might be able to detect other non-tooth related medical problems and send that information to your doctor. Your toothbrush might also update Facebook for you, suggest a novel you’d like read before you go to sleep, and figure out what kind of coffee you’d like in the morning. It might do everything your smartphone can do and more, but automatically and while cleaning your teeth.
Think about how necessary your smartphone is. Add decision making, learning, language, and intelligence to it. Then embed that in everything you interact with in everyday life, including your toothbrush. That’s what people are calling the Internet of Things or the Internet of Everything. Now think about how many opportunities there are people who will and are creating this Internet of Things.
So there you are. Five amazing things your kids can do to build an extraordinary future. Of course, there are other paths, other ways to go, other ways to be extraordinary.
Anyway, welcome to the future. Let’s hope our toothbrushes don’t take over.