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OM in the News: The Rise of the Robot Work Force Stokes Human Fears

December 29, 2014
Robotic bellhop delivers fresh towels to a Silicon Valley hotel

Robotic bellhop delivers fresh towels to a Silicon Valley hotel

A machine that administers sedatives recently began treating patients at a Seattle hospital. At a Silicon Valley hotel, a bellhop robot delivers items to people’s rooms. Last spring, a software algorithm wrote a breaking news article about an earthquake that the Los Angeles Times published. “Although fears that technology will displace jobs are at least as old as the Luddites, there are signs,” writes The New York Times (Dec.16, 2014), “that this time may really be different.” The technological breakthroughs of recent years — allowing machines to mimic the human mind — are enabling machines to do knowledge jobs and service jobs, in addition to factory and clerical work.

Economists long argued that just as buggy-makers gave way to car factories, technology would create as many jobs as it destroyed. Now many are not so sure. Artificial intelligence has become vastly more sophisticated in a short time. Self-driving vehicles are an example of the crosscurrents. They could put truck and taxi drivers out of work — or they could enable drivers to be more productive during the time they used to spend driving, which could earn them more money.

The challenge is evident for white-collar jobs, too. Ad sales agents and pilots are two jobs that the Bureau of Labor Statistics projects will decline in number over the next decade. Flying a plane is largely automated today and will become more so. (Boeing, by the way, announced last week that it is preparing for 1-pilot commercial jets). And at Google, the biggest seller of online ads, software does much of the selling and placing of search ads, meaning there is much less need for salespeople. Telemarketers are among those most at risk, adds The NY Times.

Classroom discussion questions:

1. Is artificial intelligence having as great an impact as the article suggests?

2. What other service applications can robots help perform?

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