Americans predict robot takeover of jobs, Amazon delivers

Nothing wrong with a little willful ignorance, till the robot steals your job. A hefty majority of Americans believe that within 50 years, robots and computers will do much of the work performed by humans. The losers in the employment war? “Not me.”

A national survey of 2001 adults in 2015 by the Pew Research Center found that 65 percent believed automation would cut many U.S. jobs. But 80 percent held onto the belief that their own job categories would “definitely” or “probably” survive the learned-machine incursion.

Younger respondents were more skeptical, with 35 percent of people 18 to 49 believing robots and computers were “unlikely” to take over much of human work, compared to 27 percent of those 50 or older. College graduates also took a more doubtful view of a machine takeover: 37 percent were skeptical, compared to 28 percent of the non-college-educated.

The takeover, however, has already started. Amazon in 2012 bought warehouse-robot firm Kiva Systems for $775 million. By the end of last year, Amazon had 30,000 Kiva robots toiling in 17 order-fulfillment centers, according to a just-released report by supply chain and logistics consulting firm MWPVL International. “Online orders can now be processed in as little as 15 minutes with Kiva robots,” the report said. The consulting company’s analysis found a 20 percent reduction in per-order fulfillment-center labor cost when robots are used, to 36 cents from 45.

So, who else is on the chopping block, besides warehouse workers? A group of computer scientists and machine ethicists last month predicted that within 30 years, automation could slash global employment to 50 percent of the population. Workers doing middle-level jobs will take the hardest hit, Rice University computer scientist  Moshe Vardi said.

“Those on the high end, including attorneys, doctors, and, yes, computer programmers, will still have skills (like creativity and the ability to contextualize) that even the most intelligent machines are unlikely to develop,” said a Science magazine report on the statement by the ethicists and computer scientists. “Those on the low end, including food service workers, are paid such poor wages that the cost of automation wouldn’t be worth it. Meanwhile, folks like data entry clerks, hotel clerks, and almost anyone working in delivery or shipping are likely to suffer.”

A 2013 University of Oxford report concluded that 47 percent of U.S. jobs were at high risk of elimination because of computerization, possibly within 10 or 20 years. “Most workers in transportation and logistics occupations, together with the bulk of office and administrative support workers, and labor in production occupations, are at risk,” the report said. “More surprisingly, we find that a substantial share of employment in service occupations, where most U.S. job growth has occurred over the past decades are highly susceptible to computerization.”

Now, which workers will be safest as the robots and computers advance? People with higher levels of education, and those making more money, “with computerization being principally confined to low-skill and low-wage occupations,” according to the report. “As technology races ahead, low-skill workers will reallocate to tasks that are non-susceptible to computerization – i.e., tasks requiring creative and social intelligence. For workers to win the race, however, they will have to acquire creative and social skills.”


Photo: Softbank’s Aldebaran Robotics robot Pepper speaks and performs during the news conference on June 18, 2015 in Chiba, Japan (Koki Nagahama/Getty Images)


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