Concerns are growing that robots and other new technologies will eliminate more jobs than they create. Which occupations are likely to disappear? What kinds of jobs are being displaced? What kind of jobs are being created? Which will thrive?
Robots in the workplace, smart machines, the Internet and other technologies have changed or eliminated thousands of jobs in the past decade.
While robots have been in large factories for many years, they now show up in small manufacturers, distribution centers and a host of other places. Automation is transforming banking, the back offices of corporations, airlines, call centers and retail. Secretaries are being replaced by word processors and accountants by QuickBooks. Online retailing has led to fewer jobs at shopping malls across the nation. The Internet wiped out thousands of jobs at travel agencies, and now self-service kiosks are replacing counters where airline clerks previously assisted customers. Utilities no longer hire people to read meters. New digital meters collect information without human help, generate more accurate power bills and send an alert if the power goes out.
Self-service has reached new levels in the last few years with the growth of the Web, the proliferation of computerized kiosks, better kiosk interfaces, voice recognition and mobile phones. Today millions of people manage their finances, refinance their homes, make their own travel itineraries, book their flights and hotels, track packages and buy tickets from their computers. Self-service appeals to companies because it saves money. The customer does the work once done by a paid employee. Customers like self-service because it is convenient and fast, gives them control and accommodates their schedules. Another factor speeding the proliferation of self-service is a new generation of customers, who are more comfortable using computers, keyboards and screens.
Technology is even taking some work from doctors and lawyers. Robots are being used to perform some surgeries, reducing the number of complications by 80 percent and allowing shorter hospitalizations. Specialized software is being used to review legal documents in a fraction of the time it took an army of lawyers and paralegals.
In a Wall Street Journal article in January 2012, W. Brian Arthur, an economist at Xerox Corp.’s Palo Alto Research Center, said, “It’s not just machines replacing people, though there’s some of that. It’s much more the digitization of the whole economy.”
A steep decline in the cost of computing since the 1970s provides huge incentives for employers to substitute increasingly cheap and capable computers for more expensive labor. During the recession, automation allowed many businesses to cut jobs and still maintain the same level of production. Hardware and software prices have dropped enough to make them more affordable to small firms. At the same time, smart machines have gotten smarter, their user interfaces have become much simpler and people are more comfortable using them.
The Web, artificial intelligence, big data and other technologies made possible by the ever-falling costs of computing and storage capacity are automating many routine tasks. Increasingly, digital processes are “talking” to other digital processes, enabling businesses to do more with fewer people.
Kathryn Tacke, regional economist
Kathryn.Tacke@labor.idaho.gov, 208-799-5000 ext. 3984
Coming next week: How will robots and other technology change the workforce?