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More jobs are going to the robots

Dave Ransom  |  Issue: February | March 2018

Car mechanics, drivers, real estate agents, security guards – is the last human work being homeless?


Self-driving cars

Self-driving cars are here.
PHOTO: businessinsider.com


Are you a car mechanic, a real estate agent or a security guard? Do you drive a delivery van, a taxi or a semi-truck? Are any of these your backup plan for keeping body and soul together?

If the answer is “yes,” please do not read further without sitting down and bracing yourself. Your job is in jeopardy. From robotics. Not sometime in the future. Right now.

And you are not alone. The advance of “artificial intelligence” – machines learning for themselves and teaching each other – is increasing at warp speed. Estimates for losing half our jobs to technology have dropped from 30 to 40 years in the future to 10 to 15 years – practically tomorrow.

Car mechanics – there are 750,000 in the United States today – are already losing their jobs to the increasing number of cars with electric engines. Unlike gas guzzlers, the electric cars built by Ford, GM, Nissan, and Tesla have few moving parts. They don’t require oil changes. The minor maintenance they need can be done in minutes – by the owner.

But going electric is minor compared to going driverless.

“Self-Driving Trucks May Be Closer Than They Appear,” the New York Times headlined recently. The $700 billion trucking industry is ripe for going driverless, the Times wrote, cutting labor costs, accidents, and insurance premiums.

“The result is a furious race not just to develop self-driving trucks, but to get them on the road and making money,” it says. Two top dogs in the race are Uber and Google, which say that self-driving semis are likely to be on the road before self-driving taxis. But taxis are next.

Amazon is already well on the way to fully automating its warehouses. So it’s not difficult to imagine a wholly robotic system bringing stuff in, warehousing it, and shipping it out on a truck that drives itself to your door.

At least at first, human drivers will handle the last few miles of a delivery – but on a computer screen. “One driver can drive 10 to 30 trucks per day,” says the tech company developing the software. There are 3.5 million truck drivers in the United States today. Tomorrow?

Well, if nothing else, you can sell real estate, right? Nothing’s going to replace the personal touch in showing a house to prospective buyers, and being bilingual is a plus.

Wrong. Robots are already fronting for real estate agents in the San Francisco Bay Area. Currently, there are some 2 million active agents in the United States. But “it looks like far fewer people will work in real estate, as technology boosts productivity and squeezes profits,” the San Francisco Business Times wrote in December.

The real estate robots, engineered by Zenplace Property Management, show the apartments themselves and videos of nearby parks and schools. They do background checks and take rental applications. They operate on the company’s software, but the robots are off the shelf. (And, like Siri on your iPhone, they will shortly speak all the major languages.)

As with the digitized truck system, the human real estate agents aren’t wholly eliminated – they work through the bots. But instead of showing three or four properties a day driving around, they can now show 15 to 20 a day – an 80 percent reduction in workers.


protected by robots

The Microsoft campus in Silicon Valley is protected by robots.


And the same off-the-shelf robot can be programmed for other things – like being a security guard, for instance. San Francisco already has robots roaming the sidewalks delivering food and, until recently, the SPCA there had a five-foot, 400-pound bot nicknamed “K9” clearing the homeless off the sidewalk in front of its building.

Food for thought: Were those people made homeless by the rise of the robots?

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