Robots are coming to take your job

Recent tech innovations have boosted productivity, but also eliminated a broad range of jobs as computers have gotten better at doing intellectual tasks

Technology has often seemed both a blessing and a curse, but more and more it's also the competition. If you are a bank teller or customer service rep -- even a lawyer or accountant -- a computer may in the near future take your job away. 

Technological innovation has historically boosted productivity and made societies wealthier. But with the new generation of machines able to perform increasingly sophisticated tasks, we are seeing the elimination of a broad range of jobs and a divergence between productivity and wages, economists say.

"It's the great paradox of our era," says Erik Brynjolfsson, a professor at the MIT Sloan School of Management, in a recent report from the MIT Technology Review. "Productivity is at record levels, innovation has never been faster, and yet at the same time we have a falling median income and fewer jobs."  

Brynjolfsson and his collaborator Andrew McAfee argue in their book Race Against the Machine that advances in computer technology are largely behind the sluggish employment growth of the last 10 to 15 years.

In the past, technological innovations tended to destroy jobs when first introduced, but there was a net gain of jobs in the long run as new technologies created jobs in fields that had not existed before. But with the extraordinary acceleration in information technology, powered by huge amounts of data and falling memory costs, this is no longer the case, argues Martin Ford, author of The Lights in the Tunnel: Automation, Accelerating Technology and the Economy of the Future.

In an interview last week with CBC Radio, Ford warned that as computers get better and better at doing intellectual tasks, a broader range of jobs are being automated. "Is your job routine and predictable? Could another person look at what you've done in the past and repeat it? If so, someday a machine, an algorithm, could do your job. ... Even jobs previously done by lawyers and paralegals have been vaporized [by algorithms]," he said.

IBM Research is one company pushing super-smart computing into new realms such as finance and customer service with its Watson supercomputer. IBM last month announced that it will begin selling Watson's services to customer-support call centers, and has already signed on several banks.

Automation is nothing new in call centers, but "Watson's improved capacity for natural-language processing and its ability to tap into a large amount of data suggest that this system could speak plainly with callers, offering them specific advice on even technical and complex questions. It's easy to see it replacing many human holdouts in its new field," the MIT Technology Review observes.

The technology-driven automation currently taking place is different from that of the past, Ford says. When agriculture became mechanized, millions of people were displaced from farm labor -- but those people eventually found jobs in factories, where they were able to do another type of routine work. When manufacturing jobs began to disappear, they moved to the service sector and more routine work.

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