Robots Taking Jobs From Every Sector of the Economy

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Robots taking jobs from manufacturing workers is a trend dating back decades, but rapidly advancing software has spread the threat of job-killing automation to nearly every occupation.

The technological advances, while helping businesses boost productivity dramatically, have cost the U.S. economy millions of jobs.

An investigation by the Associated Press found that most of the millions of jobs lost to the Great Recession did not migrate overseas, but simply disappeared – victims of smart robots and improvements to software that have made many jobs obsolete.

"The jobs that are going away aren't coming back," Andrew McAfee, principal research scientist at the Center for Digital Business at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and co-author of "Race Against the Machine," told the Associated Press. "I have never seen a period where computers demonstrated as many skills and abilities as they have over the past seven years."

But while many have blamed the bulk of the job losses on the bad economy, the impact of automation on the U.S. workforce will just keep getting worse.

According to a story in Wired, 70% of the jobs that exist today will vanish by the end of the century.

"Everything that humans can do, a machine can do," Moshe Vardi, a computer scientist at Rice University, told the Associated Press. "Things are happening that look like science fiction."

More Robots Taking Jobs in Factories

U.S. factories have long been on the front lines of job losses to automation, but even that has accelerated in recent years. Robots have gotten so smart and so cheap that they rival the efficiency of low-cost Asian labor.

Take "Baxter," for example. The brainchild of the same former MIT professor who invented the Roomba, Baxter is a revolution in robot technology.

Unlike its single-minded predecessors, Baxter can learn new tasks easily – simply by observing a human perform it. No complex reprogramming is required.

Also unlike previous industrial robots, Baxter has sensors that make it aware of nearby humans. This important safety feature that not only avoids accidents, but means Baxter can work anywhere that humans can.

Finally, Baxter costs just $22,000 – far cheaper than other industrial robots, which often cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to buy and maintain.

Baxter could help U.S. manufacturing rebound, but Asia is also moving quickly toward robotics. Foxconn, the huge Chinese manufacturer that assembles consumer electronics such as Apple's iPhone, said it would be adding 1 million robots to its assembly lines over the next three years.

Millions of manufacturing jobs will never return to the U.S. because they simply won't exist.

"Automation in the manufacturing industry is a net job destroyer," MIT's McAfee told The Daily Ticker. "Germany has lost manufacturing jobs, Japan has lost manufacturing jobs, and the year of peak manufacturing in China was 1996."

Robots Are Taking Everybody's Job

While robots like Baxter will keep pressure on manufacturing jobs in the U.S., it's technology's impact on service-sector jobs – which now comprise two-thirds of the workforce – that will hit the U.S. economy the hardest.

The examples are everywhere.

Increasingly sophisticated scheduling software has eliminated the need for many office assistants and secretaries; Labor Department statistics show a loss of 1.1 million such jobs in the decade between 2000 and 2010.

Other job categories were hit just as hard. The number of bookkeepers fell 26%, word processors and typists, 63%; travel agents, 46%; and telephone operators, 64%.

Online services like banking have wiped out many teller jobs; self-service checkout lanes have whittled away at cashier jobs.

Utilities have installed smart meters that eliminate the need for meter readers.

And technology that's just now becoming available, such as self-driving cars, could upend several industries, destroying the jobs of more than 3 million truck drivers, 573,000 bus drivers, and 342,000 taxi and limo drivers.

That could easily extend to other forms of transportation, such as commercial airliners, trains and ships.

Even jobs that require college degrees, including in such areas as finance and human resources, will be affected.

Online education will disrupt the traditional university model and could put a lot of professors out of work. And many foresee diagnostic robots in the healthcare sector that could reduce the number of healthcare professionals needed.

"There's no sector of the economy that's going to get a pass," Martin Ford, who wrote "The Lights in the Tunnel," a book predicting widespread job losses, told the Associated Press. "It's everywhere."

That leaves a very thorny problem. With robots taking jobs away from millions of people, who will spend the money needed to drive the U.S. economy? What becomes of the middle class?

The Associated Press investigation showed that half of the 7.5 million jobs lost in the U.S. since January 2008 paid middle-class wages, defined as $38,000 to $68,000. But of the 3.5 million jobs added during the recovery, only 2% fell into the middle-class category.

It's possible that advancing technology will create new, better jobs, as has happened in the past, but this time around, that doesn't seem to be happening, mainly because the rapid pace of change is outstripping workers' ability to adapt.

"Tech progress can make the pie bigger yet still make a lot of people worse off," Erik Brynjolfsson, head of MIT's Center for Digital Business, told The Boston Globe. "It's the big paradox of our era."

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  1. Travisd | February 5, 2013

    This is a problem that has been expected by some for quite some time. Ultimately, this "technological unemployment" will cause our current economy to essentially shut down. After all, no matter how cheap we make a product via automating the process, a person without a job can likely not afford that product.

    So we are in a unique trichotomy; We can stop the process of mechanizing our various industries and go back in time to manual farming and making everything by hand (not desirable;) we can just carry on as we are now until the system crashes (equally undesirable;) or, we can build a new resource based economical model and start using mechanization process as it was originally intended. To reduce labour for the people's benefit, rather than the sole benefit of the owner.

    • 48ozhalfgallons | February 6, 2013

      Travisd: Your "resourced based economical model" coupled to automation only throws the dart in the right direction. The bull's eye is a rapid paradigm shift to a shared output economy where productivity and output are "rationed", or more politically correct, "shared" to allow those displaced workers to share in productivity. This means the work week must be reduced to absorb involuntary workforce idleness. As automation improves productivity, the work week will decrease further.

      Unfortunately, the human nature to maximally accumulate for oneself will not allow a $100/hr worker to part with half of his punch clock time for the sake of reducing unemployment. Moreover, even if we assume that a $100/hr workforce would willingly halve its workweek, the owner of the company via the maximal accumulation principle would strive to further reduce need for payroll.

      $100/hr wages notwithstanding, even the competition for $10/hr wages confronts automation issues. I see nothing less than catastrophic revolution ultimately reducing the number of human beings as fated. Despite the reduced numbers following anarchy, the wealth gap will continue to the last handful of our species. It is our nature. Admittedly, regarding historic benchmarks, technology has enriched even the poorest of societies despite population increase. Uncertainty enters when considering time exhaustion of the sigmoid function regarding the limits of technology and population support.

      • Chris | February 7, 2013

        Moral of the story: Let's all start studying robot design and maintenance !

  2. dourdan | February 5, 2013

    I say Blade Runner

  3. Geoff Orchard | February 5, 2013

    This article reminds me of a T shirt I saw the other day.
    "If automation replaces the guy making the widget – Who, pray tell me, will buy the widget ?"
    What then is the point of automation when the upside is more efficiency and profit and the downside is extended poverty, social breakdown, crime, etc etc ? Has anyone ever conducted a study showing the true cost of automation to society ? I doubt it. Methinks you will find it wrapped up in climate change papers in the too hard basket.
    Ultimately the various iterations of Murphy's Law and the Laws of Unintended Consequences are much more powerful than the Laws of Economics.

  4. John Rankin | February 6, 2013

    No way this could take 87 more years. I would think more like a couple decades at most. But I don't think the USA's ecomony, or any countries economy, can exist with no manufacturing anyway. Drive down the roads and compare manufacturing plants versus the service industry. The economy cannot exist soley on service jobs. If nothing is manufactured ( created ) then no one earns money to buy the services. How is China going to feed it's people when millions of workers are replaced by robots?

    • Chris | February 7, 2013

      That's when they'll invade the countries they have always envied – they will invade the West !

  5. 48ozhalfgallons | February 6, 2013

    I wonder if we could automate politicians.

  6. 48ozhalfgallons | February 6, 2013

    "Tech progress can make the pie bigger yet still make a lot of people worse off," Erik Brynjolfsson, head of MIT's Center for Digital Business, told The Boston Globe. "It's the big paradox of our era."

    The problem with the big pie is it sits on a shelf reachable only by the 1%.

  7. robert | February 6, 2013

    Futurists predicted that we would all be happily unemployed as robots did all the work and everyone was free to pursue whatever made them happy.
    They failed to consider that the owners of the robots would want not share the prosperity.
    The owners need to consider that if no one shares in the wealth created by the robots, then the products the robots create will have no markets.
    Even Henry Ford realized that without decent pay, his workers could not buy his cars.
    No consumer money, no market. Business failure.

  8. H. Craig Bradley | October 14, 2013

    HAL-2000

    Don't forget the concept of an autonomous computer ( HAL-2000) that can think, reason, learn- just like a human- is close to reality. This means anyone can be replaced if the price is right-ANYONE. Only very high level executives or essential decision makers and specially skilled individuals would be left unaffected. Middle management and any kind of routine task can theoretically be farmed-out to a robot or eliminated.

    So, the mass consumer-based domestic economy is kaput. Better learn plumbing, auto repair, construction, or some hands-on skilled trade that local people depend on and need and which can not easily be farmed-out to robots or Indians.

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