Can smart machines do your job?

Some positions disappearing as companies turn to machines, software

Associated PressJanuary 26, 2013 

— Art Liscano knows he’s an endangered species in the job market: He’s a meter reader in Fresno, Calif. For 26 years, he’s driven from house to house, checking how much electricity Pacific Gas & Electric customers have used.

But PG&E doesn’t need many people like Liscano making rounds anymore. Every day, the utility replaces 1,200 old-fashioned meters with digital versions that can collect information without human help, generate more accurate power bills, even send an alert if the power goes out.

“I can see why technology is taking over,” says Liscano, 66, who earns $67,000 a year. “We can see the writing on the wall.” His department employed 50 full-time meter readers just six years ago. Now, it has six.

From giant corporations to university libraries to start-up businesses, employers are using rapidly improving technology to do tasks that humans used to do. That means millions of workers are caught in a competition they can’t win against machines that keep getting more powerful, cheaper and easier to use.

To better understand the impact of technology on jobs, The Associated Press analyzed employment data from 20 countries; and interviewed economists, technology experts, robot manufacturers, software developers, CEOs and workers who are competing with smarter machines.

The AP found that almost all the jobs disappearing are in industries that pay middle-class wages, ranging from $38,000 to $68,000. Jobs that form the backbone of the middle class in developed countries in Europe, North America and Asia.

In the United States, half of the 7.5 million jobs lost during the Great Recession paid middle-class wages, and the numbers are even more grim in the 17 European countries that use the euro as their currency. A total of 7.6 million mid-pay jobs disappeared in those countries from January 2008 through last June.

Those jobs are being replaced in many cases by machines and software that can do the same work better and cheaper.

“Everything that humans can do a machine can do,” says Moshe Vardi, a computer scientist at Rice University in Houston. “Things are happening that look like science fiction.”

Google and Toyota are rolling out cars that can drive themselves. The Pentagon deploys robots to find roadside explosives in Afghanistan and wages war from the air with drone aircraft. N.C. State University this month introduced a high-tech library where robots – “bookBots” – retrieve books when students request them, instead of humans. The library’s 1.5 million books are no longer displayed on shelves; they’re kept in 18,000 metal bins that require one-ninth the space.

The advance of technology is producing wondrous products and services. But it’s also taking a toll on people because they so easily can be replaced.

In the U.S., more than 1.1 million secretaries vanished from the job market between 2000 and 2010, their job security shattered by software that lets bosses field calls themselves and arrange their own meetings and trips.

Over the same period, the number of telephone operators plunged by 64 percent, word processors and typists by 63 percent, travel agents by 46 percent and bookkeepers by 26 percent, according to Labor Department statistics.

Does technology also create jobs? Of course. But at nowhere near the rate that it’s killing them off – at least for the foreseeable future.

Big data

At the heart of the biggest technological changes is what computer scientists call “Big Data.” Computers thrive on information, and they’re feasting on an unprecedented amount of it – from the Internet, from Twitter messages and other social media sources, from barcodes and sensors.

No human could make sense of so much data. But computers can. They sift through mountains of information and deliver valuable insights to decision-makers in businesses and government agencies. For instance, Wal-Mart’s analysis of Twitter traffic helped convince it to increase the amount of “Avengers” merchandise it offered when the superhero movie came out last year and to introduce a private-label corn chip in the American Southwest.

So far, public attention has focused on the potential threats to privacy as companies use technology to gather clues about their customers’ buying habits and lifestyles.

“What is less visible,” says software entrepreneur Martin Ford, “is that organizations are collecting huge amounts of data about their internal operations and about what their employees are doing.” The computers can use that information to “figure out how to do a great many jobs” that humans do now.

The cloud

As recently as five years ago businesses that had to track lots of information needed to install servers in their offices and hire technical staff to run them. “Cloud computing” has changed everything.

Now, companies can store information on the Internet and grab it as needed. And they don’t need to hire experts to do it.

Small businesses, which have no budget for a big technology department, are especially eager to take advantage of the cheap computer power offered in the cloud.

Automated Insights in Durham draws on the computing power of the cloud to produce automated sports stories, such as customized weekly summaries for fantasy football leagues. “We’re able to create over 1,000 pieces of content per second at a very cost-effective rate,” says founder Robbie Allen. He says his startup would not have been possible without cloud computing.

Smarter machines

Though many are still working out the kinks, software is making machines and devices smarter every year. They can learn your habits, recognize your voice, do the things that travel agents, secretaries and interpreters have traditionally done.

Microsoft has unveiled a system that can translate what you say into Mandarin and play it back – in your voice. The Google Now personal assistant can tell you if there’s a traffic jam on your regular route home and suggest an alternative. Computers with that much brainpower increasingly will invade traditional office work.

Besides becoming more powerful and creative, machines are becoming easier to use. That has made consumers increasingly comfortable relying on them to transact business.

People who used to say “Let me talk to a person. I don’t want to deal with this machine” are now using check-in kiosks at airports and self-checkout lanes at supermarkets and drugstores, says Jeff Connally, CEO of CMIT Solutions, a technology consultancy.

That has helped eliminate the jobs of bank tellers, ticket agents and checkout cashiers.

And then there are the meter readers like PG&E’s Liscano.

Southern California Edison finished its digital meter installation program late last year. Nearly all of its 972 meter readers accepted retirement packages or were transferred within the company, says Pat Lavin of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers. But 92 workers are being laid off this month.

“Trying to keep it from happening would have been like the Teamsters in the early 1900s trying to stop the combustion engine,” Lavin says. “You can’t stand in the way of technology.”

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