Will Robots Steal Your Office Job?
For a country that began with "The British are coming," might it all end with "The robots are coming"?
Automation has already provided an existential shock to industries that were once the bedrock of American life, including in the various manufacturing sectors. But now that the blue collar workers have adjusted to a post-automation working life, a flurry of recent reports are saying white collar workers, including lawyers and doctors, might be next on the automation chopping block.
That very topic was the focal point of a recent conference organized by the New America Foundation, entitled, "Will Robots Take Your Job?" As Brian Fung, of Talking Points Memo reported, myriad forms of automated services were put on display of jobs currently carried out by humans. One that he found particularly alarming, for personal reasons, was a software program called StatSheet, which culled sports statistics and vocabulary through various algorithms to produce a journalistic sports report.
The application has the capacity to create more than 15,000 articles a month.
"It's getting better every day," Robbie Allen, who invented StatSheet in 2007, told Talking Points Memo. "Within the next three to four years, it will be better than what a human can produce. And the reason for that is pretty much the foundation of computation: We can analyze and access significantly more data than one person can on their own."
Takeover In 2045?
Similar types of programs and applications were either trotted out or hypothesized for other white collar industries.
When might all this change take place? As Lev Grossman reported in his February cover story for Time, a reasonable date to expect a true changing of the guard could take place in 2045. That's the year when the so-called "singularity" is expected to take place, or the moment when machines' progress passes that of humans. That year, which derives from the prognostications of futurist Ray Kurzweil, will follow an era during which humans will complete the understanding of the human brain so as to replicate it for robots. Kurzweil has been tracking futurism since the 1960s and is a highly regarded authority on the matter.
"It's really amazing how smooth these trajectories are," he told Time, regarding the exponential growth of technological advances, "through thick and thin, war and peace, boom times and recessions."
So where does that leave all the office workers? According to Slate, which helped organize the New America Foundation conference, robots will still struggle to fulfill so-called complementary roles of the service variety. Conference attendees Tyler Cowen, author of "The Great Stagnation" and blogger at Marginal Revolution; Martin Ford, author of "The Lights in the Tunnel"; and Michael Lind, policy director of New America's Economic Growth Program, all chimed in on this front. They prognosticated one scenario in which the American workforce was potentially characterized by the personal shopper, who can adjust for the mood and taste at the whim of his master-robot.
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Dan Fastenberg was most recently a reporter with TIME Magazine. Previously, he was a writer for the Thomson Reuters news service's Latin America desk. He was also a reporter and associate editor for the Buenos Aires Herald while living in South America.
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