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Why the rise of smart machines could terminate jobs

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

This means employment opportunities will be growing in high-income jobs that need a lot of brain work and also in low-income jobs that need difficult-to-computerize manual work. What is at risk, the study says, are the middle-income, routine jobs.

"What we see now is that computers, robots and algorithms are getting better and better at doing almost anything that is routine and predictable," Ford says. "Machines are going to take over more and more of this routine stuff and the jobs that are left are going to be more in the non-routine or creative areas, or require uniquely human skills. But those jobs will be relatively few in number."

Prosumption and tech

Many of the coming technological advances, and those that are already here, will eliminate jobs without relying on computers or robots to do them. George Ritzer, distinguished professor at the University of Maryland, looks at the changes through the prism of "prosumption," the way consumers are really becoming producers or workers. For example, pumping your own gas is a job that used to be done by workers and now is done by consumers, or prosumers, as Ritzer says.

The trend of having consumers do more work is being aided by increases in technology such as the tablets at Chili's and other restaurants.

"In my view it seems clear when you create things like the ATM machine, which is automated technology, and so the prosumer does his or her own banking, that means there are fewer jobs for tellers," Ritzer says. "The more tasks the prosumer does at no charge will translate into fewer paid jobs. … Technology plays a huge role in that to empowers prosumers to do that sort of thing."

But even with technology eliminating jobs, that doesn't mean the future is all doom and gloom.

Race against machines

For proof, Ritzer points to the theories of Joseph Schumpeter, a 20th century Austrian American economist and sociologist.

"Schumpeter had this notion of capitalism as being characterized by 'creative destruction,'" Ritzer explains. "What he meant by that is that capitalism is kind of a ruthless system in that in order to advance, it must destroy."

In other words, older ways of doing work are destroyed by advances in technology as new types of work are created, hopefully, in an evolving capitalistic system. With today's fast changes, Ritzer says it is difficult to predict what that new system and work will be.

"Of course work is less and less labor intensive," he says, "so there is less for people to do."

Brant, however, says that the new information technology and smart machines may turn Schumpeter's theories upside-down. Brant says Schumpeter's "creative destruction" becomes "destructive creation" — or, in other words, our ability to create new technologies is at such a breakneck speed that jobs are lost faster than new jobs can be created to replace the old.

Frey and Osborne's study from Oxford envisions another possibility. Instead of technology pushing workers out of a job, workers resist the new technologies — bringing political and social pressure to slow the adoption of such technologies. There is a battle between technological progress and people being able to keep their jobs, a battle that shifts according to "the balance of power in society," Frey and Osborne say.

Society may also have to decided what to do as technology creates huge wealth with and for fewer and fewer people. Decisions will have to be made about how to tax that wealth if tax revenue declines among huge swaths of the population. Decisions will need to be made about how much of those concentrated economic benefits from technology should go to displaced workers.

Minimum wage

The current push for minimum-wage hikes is one of those "balance of power" economic pressures affecting how fast technology is advancing. Michael Saltsman says government can set a higher minimum wage, but doing so will reduce the total number of jobs in the service industry.

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