Saturday, April 12, 2014

American Evolution: Technology Replacing Humans

I recently read an article by a local newspaper columnist who brought to my attention a very obvious issue I really hadn't given any thought. He made me think of how realistic it could be, in the immediate future, that many of us workers will be replaced by technology. Although technology is a wonderful thing (when it works, of course), it does have its down sides. As an example, our kids today are usually completely absorbed into either social media or the wonderfully realistic computer games. Their generation will be the guinea pigs, unfortunately, for what the long term effects of technology has on the brain and in social development. I think that we are already beginning to see those effects with the hyper increase of ADHD and employees being able to do their jobs effectively, but not being able to maintain their jobs because they cannot get along with co-workers. But that's another story....

The columnist had recently been given a story from Bloomberg News that stated "technology will eliminate approximately 40 percent of our jobs". That is quite a staggering number and so I decided to do a little research to see what I could find out and make some observations.

Job Loss Qualifications

It would seem that any job which can be defined as routine is eligible to be replaced by robots, computers or some sort of software that can do a better job and be far more cheaper than human labor. What jobs qualify as routine? Here is a very brief list and the estimated number of people working in each field:
       Bank workers (we already have online banking and check scanning)               1,000,000
       Secretaries                                                                                                        1,100,000
       Real Estate Agents/Brokers                                                                                 600,000
       Truck Drivers                                                                                                    5,700,000
       Travel Agents                                                                                                        82,000
       Cashiers                                                                                                           3,300,000
       Librarians (note: you must have entry level master's degree)*                            148,400
       Meter readers                                                                                                        40,000
       Taxi Drivers/Chauffeurs                                                                                         36,200

       *"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."

As you can see over 12 million people could be without a job in the next decade or two, and this list does not come anywhere near showing the total jobs affected. "The AP found that almost all the jobs disappearing are in industries that pay middle-class wages, ranging from $38,000 to $68,000. [These are] [j]obs that form the backbone of the middle class in countries in Europe, North America and Asia."

"In the United States, half of the 7.5 million jobs lost during the Great Recession [were] paid middle-class wages..." This is an interesting statistic when we consider that it was the unethical business practices of the wealthier factions in this country who were responsible for our plunge into a recession. I would also assert that the recession felt by the middle class became a depression for the lower classes. Food pantries and shelters began seeing more and more new faces as families were losing their ability to sustain themselves. Many folks began implementing ideas that were used during the 1930's - such as using something until it is absolutely worn out. Thrift shops and supermarket stores like Aldi's as well have seen record numbers of shoppers over the past several years.

Fortunately for the poorer class, there really is no worry about being replaced by technology since their jobs are low-paying by nature and it would most likely cost more money to implement robots to function as janitors, housemaids or food service workers. Or perhaps, in time, they too might be replaced as robots become more affordable. Who knows?

Benefits of Technology

Now I don't want to just portray the gloom and doom scenario as the only outcome of technological advancement. It is certainly not this way. There are many wonderful aspects of having a wireless world.
Information exchanged is now at unprecedented levels. Literally any piece of knowledge can be retrieved or sent to anywhere in the world. Those of us who write blogs can share our minds and experiences with people in Malaysia, France, Russia, Gibraltar...the list goes on and on.
The medical field is making huge advances with information gathering done with scanners which look very similar to those used in department stores. If you close your eyes and hear the beep, you might be able to envision yourself as a domestic product being purchased. :) By doing away with the bed charts, a medical professional can access the most current patient information anywhere in the world. In the operating room there is new robotic equipment like the Da Vinci which can help a doctor perform a very low-invasive hysterectomy with great precision and with better eyes than humans possess. Even Hans Wiemann has upgraded to using robots for hair implementation for individuals suffering from hair loss.

In the realm of education, this country needs every possible means of improving the quality of our programs. We have been falling behind other countries very quickly and for quite some time. Technology is now being brought into the preschool classroom in an attempt to better educate and prepare our children for our very competitive world. Smart boards have been implemented in the middle schools and I was a bit shocked when my 10-year-old daughter told me that she not only knows how to put together a Power Point presentation, but she is very comfortable in making them because it is now common curriculum.

Growth Creates Obstacles

As amazing as technology can be there are always subversive members of our society or perhaps in the world who make themselves into bad apples. On Tuesday this week The New York Times published an article written by Nicole Perlroth which reveals a sort of "New Age" of hacking through third party systems.
     "Unable to breach the computer network at a big oil company, hackers infected with malware the online menu of a Chinese restaurant that was popular with employees. When the workers browsed the menu, they inadvertently downloaded the code that gave the attackers a foothold in the business's vast computer network."

Locally, "[h]ackers in the recent Target payment card breach gained access to the retailer's records through its heating and cooling system." How crazy it is that attackers can access vital computer systems through very simple channels without anyone even noticing? A hacker's Gold Rush, I'm sure.

After reading this article I began to think about how dependent Americans have become on their technology. Most information used or exchanged is not saved in hard copy form. Banking and financial information is quickly becoming totally digital as we attempt to streamline our lives and eliminate cluttering paperwork. Book stores are going out of business at an alarming rate because of Kindles and other media sources. Even books themselves are being eradicated and converted into a digital framework that can be "shelved" on a much smaller scale.

Just a Thought...

Thinking back on a terrible moment in our history, we can reflect on the events of 9/11 and the impact that it had on America and the world. Vulnerability is a very sensitive issue and the attack on the World Trade Towers left us in this state of being. I am concerned that our new dependence on technology could leave us being even more vulnerable than on that September day. If terrorists could implement some sort of third party system and breach our main computer systems, they could essentially shut this country down. Could it be as simple as a restaurant menu, a purchase on Amazon, or a communication on Twitter? We experienced a large financial disruption with the attack 13 years ago, so just think about how much damage could be done if an extremist group was able to gain access to all of our banking systems, corporate networks, and other crucial frameworks that have become the backbone for daily function in America. Remember, our soldiers found several computers linked to a network in the cave where Bin Laden was found. Those who wish to do us harm are very privy to our technological dependencies. In a world where robots and software are replacing humans for the causes of efficiency and cost savings, so too exists the possibility that we can be crushed far worse than the attacks in 2001. Americans have always endured though, so we can figure it out.

Works Cited

McClellan, Bill. "Economy on Autopilot Raises Scary Questions." St, Louis Post-Dispatch. Wednesday      March 26, 2014. Page A13.

Perlroth, Nicole. "Hackers Luring in Vents and Soda Machines." The New York Times. Tuesday, April 8,     2014. Front page.

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