Automating America


Despite the hopefulness that the U.S. economic recovery has brought, many anxieties still linger about the future.  As we head into a new year, one particular concern is over increasing job automation.  

Back in 2011, a computer system named Watson competed against the best Jeopardy! contestants and won. Watson earned $77,147 in the three day contest, outdistancing its human opponents (Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter won $24,000 and $21,600 respectively). The Jeopardy! victor took 25 IBM scientists four years to build, with costs estimated over $30 million. It has since been put to use alongside doctors at the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. 

Watson is one indicator of how much determination there is to increase automation in different fields. With the willingness to make large scale investments like this, there’s no question automation will continue to rise, but how steeply? 

A recent Oxford University Study estimated that 45% of American jobs are at high risk of being automated within the next 20 years.  In the manufacturing sector, robots will be increasingly employed as their price continues to drop and their sophistication rises.  And in the distribution field, robots are being used to cover space once traveled by humans. Last year, after learning that the average employee walked 10 miles a day to fulfill orders, Amazon bought a company called Kiva Systems which designs robots to move inventory shelves.  And what about the spot on 60 Minutes where Jeff Bezos talked about using drones to deliver customer orders?

The manufacturing sector may be nearing the end of good opportunities for automation though. The proportion of Americans working in manufacturing was around 30% following World War II and has dropped to around 10% today.  A post in the MIT Technology Review “How Technology is Destroying Jobs” observed, “Many of the traditional problems in robotics—such as how to teach a machine to recognize an object as, say, a chair—remain largely intractable and are especially difficult to solve when the robots are free to move about a relatively unstructured environment like a factory or office.”  While there may still be a few pieces of low-hanging fruit, a key question is whether pushing automation further in this area will be worthwhile. 

Amid the excitement over newly automated functions, there is also fear about what will happen in the job market and how this could impact the economy. An article inTrends Magazine “Is your job safe? The automation of American Jobs” commented, “Some experts have concluded that because the high-end professional jobs and the low-end service jobs will be the hardest to automate, in the short run there will be a polarization of employment, with most growth and job security being concentrated in both the highest- and lowest-paid occupations. However, this vision overlooks the potential for technology to create a whole new set of jobs in the middle that will harness the respective strengths of machines and humans to create a whole that's greater than the sum of the parts.”  

For example, in Watson’s case it would be far too risky for it to operate alone.  A machine can only do what it’s programmed to do and when the program overlooks an important detail, human oversight and problem solving are needed to set it back on course. 

All told, it’s likely there will be many changes in the job market due to the growing level of automation. Some jobs will phase out, but new career opportunities will emerge.