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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