January 26, 2013

Rise of the (job killing) machines?

Progress favors brains over brawn, and millions of midskill jobs have vanished in just the last five years.

By BERNARD CONDON and PAUL WISEMAN The Associated Press

(Continued from page 2)

Just Brudeau
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This Sony 3-D personal viewer at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas is just a high-tech gadget, but may also be seen as a forerunner of much higher-tech automation that replaces jobs now performed by people.

The Associated Press

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This engineer in Budapest, Hungary, could be an example of what some futurists fear: Highly skilled workers prosper, but midskilled workers are shunted into lower positions.

The Associated Press

Says Andrew McAfee, principal research scientist at MIT's Center for Digital Business:"Restaurant bus boy is a very safe job for a long time."

Under this scenario, technology could continue to push economic growth -- but only a few would enjoy the benefits. More people would be competing for midpay jobs, so pay would shrivel. Many midskill workers would be left unemployed or shunted into low-skill, low-pay jobs. The income gap between the rich and ordinary citizens would continue to widen.

Technology leads to mass unemployment

In a speech last year, former U.S. Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers declared that the biggest economic issue of the future would not be the federal debt or competition from China but "the dramatic transformations that technology is bringing about."

Summers imagined a machine called the "Doer" that could make anything or provide any service. Productivity would soar. Wonderful goods and services would emerge. Enormous wealth would go "to those who could design better Doers, to those who could think of better things for Doers to do." But everyone else would be worthless in the labor market.

Indeed, ATMs have dislodged some bank tellers. Microsoft Outlook manages what secretaries used to do. Expedia is replacing travel agents. E-ZPass is doing away with toll-booth operators. And robots continue to supplant factory workers.

But surely some jobs are safe. Truck drivers, perhaps? And yet, Google developed a car that could drive itself, crossing the Golden Gate Bridge, circling Lake Tahoe and cruising down Hollywood Boulevard. The gee-whiz driverless car could soon claim victims in the job market.

In the United States alone, 92,000 people are employed as sanitation workers, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Add all other driving occupations, from long-haul truckers to taxi cab drivers, and the total exceeds 4 million. All those jobs may be in danger.

"The vast majority of people do routine work. The human economy has always demanded routine work," says software entrepreneur Martin Ford. He worries that machines will take all those routine jobs, leaving few opportunities for ordinary workers.

In his book "The Lights in the Tunnel," Ford foresees a computer-dominated economy with 75 percent unemployment before the end of this century; the vast majority of workers, he predicts, won't be able to develop the skills necessary to outrun job-killing computers and robots.

In the 1970s, GM had some 600,000 workers. Today it employs just 202,000 people, while making more cars than ever.

As far back as 1958, American union leader Walter Reuther recalled going through a Ford Motor plant that was already automated. A company manager goaded him: "Aren't you worried about how you are going to collect union dues from all these machines?"

"The thought that occurred to me," Reuther replied, "was how are you going to sell cars to these machines?"

 

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