Magazine article Newsweek

Who Needs Humans?

Magazine article Newsweek

Who Needs Humans?

Article excerpt

Byline: Dan Lyons

As if American workers don't have it rough enough, with unemployment skyrocketing and jobs moving overseas, now there's another threat: robots.

Amid all the job losses of the Great Recession, there is one category of worker that the economic disruption has been good for: nonhumans.

From self-service checkout lines at the supermarket to industrial robots armed with saws and taught to carve up animal carcasses in slaughter-houses, these ever-more-intelligent machines are now not just assisting workers but actually kicking them out of their jobs.

Automation isn't just affecting factory workers, either. Some law firms now use artificial intelligence software to scan and read mountains of legal documents, work that previously was performed by highly paid human lawyers.

"Robots continue to have an impact on blue-collar jobs, and white-collar jobs are under attack by microprocessors," says Edward Leamer, an economics professor at UCLA's Anderson School of Management and director of the UCLA Anderson Forecast, a survey of the U.S. and California economies. Leamer says the recession permanently wiped out 2.5 million jobs. U.S. gross domestic product has climbed back to pre-recession levels, meaning we're producing as much as before, only with 6 percent fewer workers. To be sure, robotics are not the only job killers out there, with outsourcing stealing far more gigs than automation.

Jeff Burnstein, president of the Robotics Industry Association, a trade group in Ann Arbor, Mich., argues that robots actually save U.S. jobs. His logic: companies that embrace automation might use fewer workers, but that's still better than firing everyone and moving the work overseas.

It's not that robots are cheaper than humans, though often they are. It's that they are better. "In some cases the quality requirements are so stringent that even if you wanted to have a human do the job, you couldn't," Burnstein says. …

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