Pre-Christmas, I read that the online retailing giant Amazon.com now has more than 30,000 robots in 13 warehouses. “We’re using software and algorithms to make decisions rather than people,” the company’s CEO was quoted. “We think this is more efficient and … will be more accurate.”
The Bank of England recently suggested that in the next 10 to 20 years machines could replace 80 million U.S. jobs and 15 million British jobs. “Unlike in the past, machines have the potential to substitute for human brains as well as hands,” said the bank’s chief economist, Andy Haldane.
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Likely candidates for the employee chopping block, according to an Oxford University study: drivers, security guards, fast food cooks, bartenders, receptionists, loan officers, salespersons, paralegals. A CNN Money list includes toll booth operators, cashiers, marketers, customer service persons, factory workers, financial middle men, lawyers, journalists, and telecom workers.
And if you think it’s maddening to try deal with a customer service rep in India or other far-flung outpost, well, just wait until you’re talking to a supercomputer using predictive analysis. There is potential, we’re told, to replace everyone in a company’s customer service department.
While it’s bad enough that the newspapers and magazines that were once the go-to sources for factual, in-depth information have been killed off or are on life support as a result of the Internet’s every-second-of-every-day bombardment of content — however useless or inane much of it may be — we journalists are warned that we’re also subject to being consigned to the scrap heap by algorithms that automatically create stories and post them on websites without human interaction.
A recent article tells how a Chinese factory has replaced 90 percent of its human workers with robots, in the process achieving higher production (162 percent increase) with fewer defects (below 5 percent, versus 25 percent for humans).
Oh, and this trend is not gender neutral. The Atlantic magazine says 47 percent of jobs in over 700 different occupations are susceptible to automation, and “the jobs performed by women are relatively safe, while those typically performed by men are at risk.”
Agriculture, which has eliminated hundreds of thousands of farm worker jobs over the past four decades by adopting ever more sophisticated machinery and technology, is expected to see increased use of robotic equipment. Compared to the challenges of self-driving autos on crowded streets and highways, self-driving tractors, combines, and other equipment will be a piece of cake.
Barring electronic Armageddon, it appears that for many jobs humans will be increasingly unnecessary.