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Columbia Missourian

THE GREAT RESET: Practically human: Can smart machines do your job?

By BERNARD CONDON, JONATHAN FAHEY and PAUL WISEMAN/The Associated Press
January 24, 2013 | 6:00 a.m. CST
The number of meter readers in the U.S. fell from 48,000 in 2000 to 36,000 in 2010. It's just one example of technological advances that have increased production while employers have been able to reduce the number of workers needed to get the job done.

EDITOR'S NOTE: Second in a three-part series on the loss of middle-class jobs in the wake of the Great Recession and the role of technology.

WASHINGTON — Art Liscano knows he's an endangered species in the job market: He's a meter reader in Fresno, Calif. For 26 years, he's driven from house to house, checking how much electricity Pacific Gas & Electric customers have used.

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But PG&E doesn't need many people like Liscano making rounds anymore. Every day, the utility replaces 1,200 old-fashioned meters with digital versions that can collect information without human help, generate more accurate power bills and even send an alert if the power goes out.

"I can see why technology is taking over," said Liscano, 66, who earns $67,000 a year. "We can see the writing on the wall." His department employed 50 full-time meter readers just six years ago. Now, it has six.

From giant corporations to university libraries to start-up businesses, employers are using rapidly improving technology to do tasks that humans used to do. That means millions of workers are caught in a competition they can't win against machines that keep getting more powerful, cheaper and easier to use.

To better understand the impact of technology on jobs, The Associated Press analyzed employment data from 20 countries and interviewed economists, technology experts, robot manufacturers, software developers, CEOs and workers who are competing with smarter machines.

The AP found that almost all the jobs disappearing are the mid-skill, mid-pay jobs — jobs with salaries ranging from $37,000 to $68,000 — that form the backbone of the middle class in developed countries in Europe, North America and Asia.

In the United States, half of the 7.5 million jobs lost during the Great Recession paid middle-class wages, and the numbers are even more grim in the 17 European countries that use the euro as their currency. A total of 7.6 million mid-pay jobs disappeared in those countries from January 2008 through last June.

Those jobs are being replaced in many cases by machines and software that can do the same work better and cheaper.

"Everything that humans can do a machine can do," said Moshe Vardi, a computer scientist at Rice University in Houston. "Things are happening that look like science fiction."

Google and Toyota are rolling out cars that can drive themselves. The Pentagon deploys robots to find roadside explosives in Afghanistan and wages war from the air with drone aircraft. North Carolina State University this month introduced a high-tech library where robots — "bookBots" — retrieve books when students request them, instead of humans. The library's 1.5 million books are no longer displayed on shelves; they're kept in 18,000 metal bins that require one-ninth the space.

The advance of technology is producing wondrous products and services that once were unthinkable. But it's also taking a toll on people, because they so easily can be replaced.

In the U.S., nearly 1.2 million secretaries vanished from the job market between 2000 and 2010, their job security shattered by software that lets bosses field calls themselves and arrange their own meetings and trips. Over the same period, the number of word processors and typists plunged by 69 percent, telephone operators by 64 percent, bookkeepers by 53 percent and travel agents by 46 percent, according to Labor Department statistics.

In Europe, technology is shaking up human resources departments across the continent. "Nowadays, employees are expected to do a lot of what we used to think of as HR from behind their own computer," said Ron van Baden, a negotiator with the Dutch labor union federation FNV. "It used to be that you could walk into the employee affairs office with a question about your pension or the terms of your contract. That's all gone and automated."

Two-thirds of the 7.6 million middle-class jobs that vanished in Europe were the victims of technology, estimates economist Maarten Goos at Belgium's University of Leuven.

Does technology also create jobs? Of course. But at nowhere near the rate that it's killing them off — at least for the foreseeable future.

Here's a look at three technological factors reshaping the economy and the job markets in developed countries:

Big Data

At the heart of the biggest technological changes today is what computer scientists call "Big Data." Computers thrive on information, and they're feasting on an unprecedented amount of it — from the Internet, from Twitter messages and other social media sources, from the barcodes and sensors being slapped on everything from boxes of Huggies diapers to stamping machines in car plants.

According to a Harvard Business Review article by Andrew McAfee and Erik Brynjolfsson of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, more information now crosses the Internet every second than the entire Internet stored 20 years ago. Every hour, they note, Walmart collects 20 million filing cabinets' worth of information from its dealings with customers.

No human could make sense of so much data. But computers can. They can sift through mountains of information and deliver valuable insights to decision-makers in businesses and government agencies. For instance, Walmart's analysis of Twitter traffic helped convince it to increase the amount of "Avengers" merchandise it offered when the superhero movie came out last year and to introduce a private-label corn chip in the American Southwest.

Google's automated car can only drive by itself by tapping into Google's vast collection of maps and using information pouring in from special sensors to negotiate traffic.

"What's different to me is the raw amount of data out there because of the Web, because of these devices, because we're attaching sensors to things," said McAfee, principal research scientist at MIT's Center for Digital Business and the co-author of "Race Against the Machine."

"The fuel of science is data," he says. "We have so much more of that rocket fuel."

So far, public attention has focused on the potential threats to privacy as companies use technology to gather clues about their customers' buying habits and lifestyles.

"What is less visible," said software entrepreneur Martin Ford, "is that organizations are collecting huge amounts of data about their internal operations and about what their employees are doing." The computers can use that information to "figure out how to do a great many jobs" that humans do now.

Gary Mintchell, editor of Automation World, recalls starting work in manufacturing years ago as a "grunge, white-collar worker." He'd walk around the factory floor with a clipboard, recording information from machines, then go back to an office and enter the data by hand onto a spreadsheet.

Now that grunge work is conducted by powerful "operations management" software systems developed by businesses such as General Electric Intelligent Platforms in Charlottesville, Va. These systems continuously collect, analyze and summarize in digestible form information about all aspects of factory operations — energy consumption, labor costs, quality problems, customer orders.

And the guys wandering the factory floor with clipboards? They're gone.

The Cloud

In the old days — say, five years ago — businesses that had to track lots of information needed to install servers in their offices and hire technical staff to run them. "Cloud computing" has changed everything.

Now, companies can store information on the Internet — perhaps through Amazon Web Services or Google App Engine — and grab it when they need it. And they don't need to hire experts to do it.

Cloud computing "is a catch-all term for the ability to rent as much computer power as you need without having to buy it, without having to know a lot about it," McAfee said. "It really has opened up very high-powered computing to the masses."

Small businesses, which have no budget for a big technology department, are especially eager to take advantage of the cheap computer power offered in the cloud.

Hilliard's Beer in Seattle, founded in October 2011, bought software from the German company SAP that allows it to use cloud computing to track sales and inventory and to produce the reports that federal regulators require.

"It automates a lot of the stuff that we do," owner Ryan Hilliard said. "I know what it takes to run a server. I didn't want to hire an IT guy."

And the brewery keeps finding new ways to use the beefed-up computing power. For example, it's now tracking what happens to the kegs it delivers to restaurants and retrieving them sooner for reuse. "Kegs are a pretty big expense for a small brewery," Hilliard said.

Automated Insights in Durham, N.C., draws on the computing power of the cloud to produce automated sports stories, such as customized weekly summaries for fantasy football leagues. "We're able to create over 1,000 pieces of content per second at a very cost-effective rate," said founder Robbie Allen. His startup, which duplicates work done by human reporters, would not have been possible without cloud computing.

Smarter machines

Although many are still working out the kinks, software is making machines and devices smarter every year. They can learn your habits, recognize your voice and do the things that travel agents, secretaries and interpreters have traditionally done.

Microsoft has unveiled a system that can translate what you say into Mandarin and play it back — in your voice. The Google Now personal assistant can tell you if there's a traffic jam on your regular route home and suggest an alternative. Talk to Apple's Siri, and she can reschedule an appointment. IBM's Watson supercomputer can field an awkwardly worded question, figure out what you're trying to ask, retrieve the answer and spit it out fast enough to beat human champions on the TV quiz show "Jeopardy!" Computers with that much brainpower increasingly will invade traditional office work.

Besides becoming more powerful and creative, machines and their software are becoming easier to use. That has made consumers increasingly comfortable relying on them to transact business. As well as eliminate jobs of bank tellers, ticket agents and checkout cashiers.

People who used to say "Let me talk to a person. I don't want to deal with this machine" are now using check-in kiosks at airports and self-checkout lanes at supermarkets and drugstores, said Jeff Connally, CEO of CMIT Solutions, a technology consultancy.

The most important change in technology, he said, is "the profound simplification of the user interface."

Four years ago, the Darien, Conn., public library bought self-service check-out machines from 3M Co. Now, with customers scanning books themselves, the library is processing more books than ever while shaving 15 percent from staff hours by using part-time workers more.

So machines are getting smarter, and people are more comfortable using them. Those factors, combined with the financial pressures of the Great Recession, have led companies and government agencies to cut jobs the past five years, yet continue to operate just as well.

How is that happening?

The software was nothing fancy, just a collection of forms and pull-down menus, but the impact was huge. The shift from paper eliminated the need for two dozen transcribers and filing staff at police headquarters, and freed desk-bound officers to return to the streets.

"A sergeant used to read them, sign them, an officer would photocopy them and another drive them to headquarters," said Dick Reed, an assistant chief overseeing technology. "Think of the time, think of the salary. You're paying an officer to make photocopies."

Thanks to the software, the department has been able to maintain the number of cops patrolling the streets at 600 the past five years by reassigning 55 non-patrol officers to beats.

The software, from Versaterm, a Canadian company, is being used by police in dozens of cities, including Denver, Portland, Ore., and Austin, Texas.

"The technology for delivering (high quality) video over a public Internet connection was unavailable 12 or 18 months ago," said Paul Obermeyer, Comerica's chief information officer. "Now, we're able to generate more revenue with the same employee base."

The networking equipment also allows video to be delivered to smart phones, so the experts can make pitches on the run, too.

"A pilotless airliner is going to come; it's just a question of when," James Albaugh, CEO of Boeing Commercial Airlines, said in 2011 to IEEE Spectrum magazine. "You'll see it in freighters first, over water probably, landing very close to the shore."

Unmanned trains already have arrived. The United Arab Emirates introduced the world's longest automated rail system — 32 miles — in Dubai in 2009.

And the trains on several Japanese rail lines run by themselves. Tokyo's Yurikamome Line, which skirts Tokyo Bay, is completely automated. The line — named for the black-headed sea gull that is Tokyo's official bird — employs only about 60 regular employees at its 16 stations. "Certainly, using the automated systems does reduce the number of staff we need," said Katsuya Hagane, the manager in charge of operations at New Transit Yurikamome.

Driverless cars will have a revolutionary impact on traffic one day — and the job market. In the United States alone, 3 million people drive trucks for a living, 600,000 drive buses, 390,000 drive taxis or limousines. All those jobs will be threatened by automated vehicles.

Verizon also makes it easier for customers to deal with problems themselves without calling a repairman. From their homes, consumers can open Verizon's In-home Agent software on their computers. The system can determine why a cable TV box isn't working or why the Internet connection broke — and fix the problem in minutes. The program has been downloaded more than 2 million times, Verizon says.

And then there are the meter readers like PG&E's Liscano. Their future looks grim.

Southern California Edison finished its digital meter installation program late last year. All but 20,000 of its 5.3 million customers have their power usage beamed directly to the utility.

Nearly all of the 972 meter readers in Southern California Edison's territory accepted retirement packages or were transferred within the company, said Pat Lavin of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers. But 92 workers are being laid off this month.

"Trying to keep it from happening would have been like the Teamsters in the early 1900s trying to stop the combustion engine," Lavin said. "You can't stand in the way of technology."

NEXT: Will smart machines create a world without work?