Robots Stealing Your Job?

You’re highly educated. You make a lot of money. You should still be afraid.

Farhad Manjoo

If you’re taking a break from work to read this article, I’ve got one question for you: Are you crazy? I know you think no one will notice, and I know that everyone else does it. Perhaps your boss even approves of your Web surfing; maybe she’s one of those new-age managers who believes the studies showing that short breaks improve workers’ focus. But those studies shouldn’t make you feel good about yourself. The fact that you need regular breaks only highlights how flawed you are as a worker. I don’t mean to offend. It’s just that I’ve seen your competition. Let me tell you: You are in peril.

At this moment, there’s someone training for your job. He may not be as smart as you are—in fact, he could be quite stupid—but what he lacks in intelligence he makes up for in drive, reliability, consistency, and price. He’s willing to work for longer hours, and he’s capable of doing better work, at a much lower wage. He doesn’t ask for health or retirement benefits, he doesn’t take sick days, and he doesn’t goof off when he’s on the clock.

Illustration by Robert Neubecker. Click image to expand.What’s more, he keeps getting better at his job. Right now, he might only do a fraction of what you can, but he’s an indefatigable learner—next year he’ll acquire a few more skills, and the year after that he’ll pick up even more. Before you know it, he’ll be just as good a worker as you are. And soon after that, he’ll surpass you.

By now it should be clear that I’m not talking about any ordinary worker. I’m referring to a nonhuman employee—a robot, or some kind of faceless software running on a server. I’ve spent the last few months investigating the ways in which automation and artificial intelligence are infiltrating a range of high-skilled professions. What I found was unsettling. They might not know it yet, but some of the most educated workers in the nation are engaged in a fierce battle with machines. As computers get better at processing and understanding language and at approximating human problem-solving skills, they’re putting a number of professions in peril. Those at risk include doctors, lawyers, pharmacists, scientists, and creative professionals—even writers like myself.

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