Will a robot take your job?

Author:Sherman, Erik
Position::ECONOMICS
 
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Robots and computers are learning to do many jobs held by humans. What does that mean for you?

The staffers at the Henn-na Hotel near Nagasaki, Japan, are always friendly, report to work on time, and never call in sick. But they aren't ordinary employees--they're robots. At the world's first hotel staffed almost entirely by machines, humanlike robots chat with guests, carry customers' luggage, and deliver room service.

The hotel, which opened in 2015, may sound like fun, but it's no laughing matter for the people who were passed over for jobs given to the robots. And those people are about to have a lot of company--not only in Japan but in the United States. According to researchers at Oxford University in England, nearly half of all U.S. jobs--including 70 percent of low-skilled professions--are at risk of being replaced by technology within the next two decades (see graphic, p. 13).

Worldwide, many hospitals are already using robots to run lab tests and help diagnose patients. Restaurants are relying on computers to take orders and prepare food. And in recent years, many bank tellers, tollbooth operators, cashiers, tax preparers, and travel agents have been replaced by machines.

But as robots take on more work, what will happen to human workers? Historically, technological advances have created more jobs than they've eliminated. But today's sophisticated automation--including driverless cars and robots that can read facial expressions--may prove to be a bigger threat to jobs than the technology of previous decades.

"Machines are learning to do human things that they never, ever could do before," says Andrew McAfee, a scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

The Industrial Revolution

The struggle between technology and jobs has been going on for centuries. In 1589, Queen Elizabeth I of England refused to give inventor William Lee a patent for a machine that would have replaced hand knitting. She worried that the device would eliminate the need for human workers and lead to widespread unemployment and poverty.

During the Industrial Revolution in the 18th and 19th centuries, the rise of factories and power-driven machines eventually did eliminate the need for many skilled laborers who worked by hand, including carpenters and weavers. But factories also created new job opportunities, especially for unskilled workers. For decades, millions of people worked in factories on assembly lines, producing everything from cars to electronics. But beginning in the 1960s, many factory workers began to be replaced by machines that could perform the same tasks faster and cheaper.

Today, low-skilled jobs like janitor and waiter are still the ones that are most threatened by technology. And companies like Tesla, Google, and Uber are developing driverless cars that could one day make cab or bus drivers a thing of the past. Even tractor-trailer drivers could become obsolete: German automaker Daimler's Inspiration Truck, a self-driving 18-wheeler, will soon hit the road in Nevada.

But increasingly, complex jobs across many industries are at risk too. Many law firms, for example, are using computers to draft contracts and search through documents, cutting down on the need for legal assistants. In hospitals, machines are being used to administer anesthesia for certain medical procedures. Robots are even performing some surgeries.

Despite the threat to some industries, however, technology is also creating new jobs. But they will require a lot of training and, in many cases, a college degree, according to technology writer Howard Rheingold.

"The jobs that the robots will leave for humans will be those that require thought and knowledge," he told the Pew...

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