The “fourth industrial revolution” is upon us and, according to the World Economic Fund, it is set to drastically disrupt business modes, labour markets, and economies across the world. In fact, in a report released this week, the Swiss foundation gave a conservative estimate of 7.1 million jobs that could vanish due to redundancy and automation by 2020. Some 2.1 million jobs will be created and marginally offset that loss – but the 5 million remaining, mostly white collar jobs, will see themselves performed by one or more  machine.

Where previous industrial revolutions were powered by tools that workers could control, the current revolution is lead by machines which may well control themselves. The WEF lists artificial intelligence and machine-learning among the most disruptive technologies to date, predicting that the advancements in these fields will cause “enormous change…in the skill sets needed to thrive.”

The report comes just one day before the WEF’s annual forum in Davos, Switzerland – a forum to bring over 2,500 business leaders, governmental figures, and members of society together to discuss the state of the global economy. This year, the focus will be on jobs, with a particular emphasis on the effects of potential but widespread automation.

To formulate their report, the WEF surveyed held a broad survey representing 65 percent of the global workforce, including senior executives from 350 companies from nine industries and 15 economies.

The report found that healthcare, energy, financial services, and investors will take the biggest hit from automation. We’ve seen how AI and robots already perform as surgeons and caregivers. Earlier this year, Financial Times and the BBC reported how AI programs are transforming the financial industry.

But some jobs are safe – or even supported – by the rise in automation. Humans prefer to deal with humans and humans are still best at engaging with humans on a personal level. Thus jobs in human resources and organizational development seem to be safe. Positions as data analysts and sales representatives also seem to be secure. And, of course, jobs that deal with developing and refining AI are safe, as are positions that require skills working with materials, biochemicals, nanotechnologies, and robotics – each of which is another fuel for the fourth industrial revolutions.

What can we do to protect employment? 

The WEF survey recommends “re-skilling” employees as the best way to counteract job loss. That is, teaching workers to work with machines rather than against them. This isn’t much different then the way workers in the 18th and 19th centuries were retrained to use their new factory machines – except that many of today’s machines will be developed to use themselves.

Perhaps the most jarring estimate from the report is that 65 percent of today’s primary school children will find themselves in jobs that don’t exist yet. Most of these children will be at the whim (or careful planning) of  current industry leaders once the students graduate and enter the workforce. But, as these disruptive technologies develop at increasing rates, some of these students will be the very engineers of the as of yet unknown jobs their peers will one day work.

Image credit: visual.ly