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Why the rise of smart machines could terminate jobs

Published: Wednesday, March 12 2014 12:30 p.m. MDT

In this Nov. 6 photo, Dr. Alan Shatzel, medical director of the Mercy Telehealth Network, is displayed on the monitor RP-VITA robot as he waits to confer with Dr. Alex Nee at Mercy San Juan Hospital in Carmichael, Calif. The robots enable physicians to "beam" themselves into hospitals to diagnose patients and offer medical advice during emergencies.

Rich Pedroncelli, Associated Press

HARRISVILLE, Utah — Holly Prince's new work partner is helping her make more money as a server at a Chili’s north of Salt Lake.

"Normally I can serve five or six tables at a time," Prince says while taking an order on a busy Saturday night. "Yesterday, I was able to serve nine tables at a time all day long. The tips have gone up and the number of people ordering desserts has gone up."

Prince's other fellow server, Stewart Pickett, also has nothing but praise for the new guy, Ziosk, who works with both Pickett and Prince throughout the day.

Ziosk isn't a human, but a tabletop computer. Ziosk allows customers to order appetizers, desserts and drinks by tapping and swiping on colorful displays of food such as gooey gobs of melting chocolate and caramel covering domes of ice cream.

"It's a time saver," Pickett says. "And a time waster."

The time-waster part refers to the games on the tablet, available for 99 cents, that can keep kids occupied while waiting for food.

The Ziosk tablet is part of a growing trend of automization and technological integration into the workplace. Chili’s recently announced that it was partnering with Texas-based Ziosk to install tabletop tablets at all 823 of the restaurant's locations by the middle of this year.

Applebee's is going to roll out a similar tablet in 100,000 locations this year.

But it isn't just restaurants that are seeing the rise of smart machines, software and robots. It's a trend that has troubling implications for the American workforce. IBM's Watson computer may be used to diagnose cancer and determine the most effective treatments, and lawyers already rely on another computer system to analyze hundreds of thousands of documents in legal cases, a task that would have taken a large team of paralegals.

A study last year by Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael A. Osborne at Oxford University titled, “The Future of Employment: How Susceptible Are Jobs to Computerization?” looked at how machines are radically transforming the global workforce and displacing tens of thousands of jobs in the process. Some experts say Americans are in the midst of a seismic reordering of the world's labor force, unlike anything before in human history. The report concludes that 47 percent of all U.S. employment is at risk of being taken over by computerization.

All of this is happening at a time in which political leaders are arguing about the merits of raising the minimum wage. President Barack Obama recently argued that raising the minimum wage will pull millions out of poverty. Economists and futurists say the rise of technology may wipe out any gains made by a minimum wage hike, and that its impact won't be felt just among low-skilled workers, but on the middle-class as well.

The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office report, "The Effects of a Minimum-Wage Increase on Employment and Family Income," acknowledges that a raise in minimum wage might mean some employers will reduce the number of low-wage employees in favor of using technology, but it doesn't address the pace of technological change except to say it is "difficult to predict."

Martin Ford, author of "The Lights in the Tunnel," a book about the impact of information technology on the economy, isn't afraid to make predictions. He says the coming world of employment is essentially a story of machines and robots and software substituting for human labor.

"Technology is going to be able to take on, in particular, the routine things that people used to do and that is going to be a huge driver of inequality going forward," Ford says. "We are going to see fewer and fewer people over time really have the marketable skills they need to compete in the job market."

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