The Machines Are Coming

Adam McCauley/Theispot

For as long as I can remember, futurists have been warning that machines would soon replace humans in any number of tasks even as most economists have patronizingly explained that automation creates more jobs than it destroys. Well, thanks to rapidly accelerating progress in artificial intelligence, the future has just about arrived. Check out this representative list of occupations and their vulnerability, compiled by Brookings Institution analysts with data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics and theMcKinsey Global Institute. Routine production jobs are first in line for the ax, while highly skilled, difficult to routinize work is least vulnerable. But in between, things are messy. Lower-skilled workers who clean houses and care for the chronically ill, for example, are safe. The broader picture, though, is pretty grim: we can’t all become managers or software developers, even if the government were prepared to train anybody who wanted to try. And in most occupations, the threat of automation will, at best, keep wages low. The only real fix this economist can imagine is one that equitably divides the productivity gains generated by the machines we love to hate. But that’s another story. — Peter Passell