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Divisions of Labor

Automation Nation

IN THE FUTURE, “handmade” will not always mean touched by humans. We look at jobs in six industries that are about to lose people and gain robots.

Telemarketers

NUMBER OF PEOPLE EMPLOYED NOW: 215,290

AUTOMATION ESTIMATE: 99 percent (213,137 jobs at current levels)

If you’ve answered a sales phone call in the last few years, you’ve likely spoken with what one might call a cyborg telemarketer. Their accent may be flawless, and they may say their name is Jenny or Mike, but they’re really just a recording—with a script being controlled by a human thousands of miles away, based on your responses. Known as “voice-conversion” technology or “agent-assisted automation,” the remote-controlled state of telemarketing in 2017 is a harbinger of the coming automation of other computerized jobs. Lower-skilled positions may be turned over to robots, but new jobs will be created to supervise the automated workforce.

Waiters

NUMBER OF PEOPLE EMPLOYED NOW: 2,564,610

AUTOMATION ESTIMATE: 94 percent (2,410,733 jobs at current levels)

Restaurant chains such as Chili’s, Applebee’s, and Olive Garden have been asking customers to order their meals on tabletop tablets for a while now. The touchscreen devices are seen as “server assistants,” with human waiters delivering the actual food. More recently, the San Francisco–based quinoa chain Eatsa omitted human interaction entirely, with automated technology that notifies customers when their order has been placed inside a glass cubbyhole. Restaurants in Asia are already using more advanced automation, but mostly for novelty: In China, a sit-down restaurant with robot servers has become a tourist draw (the robots look not unlike Rosie from The Jetsons), while in Japan, a large sushi chain uses a “bullet train” on a track running next to diners’ booths to deliver food.

Accountants and Auditors

NUMBER OF PEOPLE EMPLOYED NOW: 1,246,540

AUTOMATION ESTIMATE: 94 percent (1,171,747 at current levels)

More than any other profession besides telemarketing, accountants have seen the lion’s share of their job duties—particularly tax preparation—becoming automated. This is best illustrated by two developments this year: H&R Block launched a tax program using IBM’s cognitive-computing program Watson to let clients know which tax routes would lead to the maximum refund, and TurboTax recently debuted a tax “answer bot” on Facebook. To avoid obsolescence, many accountants are moving away from data-entry-heavy tasks and toward more analytical roles.

Meat, Poultry, and Fish Cutters and Trimmers

NUMBER OF PEOPLE EMPLOYED NOW: 149,800

AUTOMATION ESTIMATE: 93 percent (140,812 jobs at current levels)

Deboning, cutting, and trimming animal carcasses are some of the most dangerous jobs in America; workers who use sharp blades for repetitive motions in close quarters are frequently injured on the job. Recently, the mega poultry producer Case Farms purchased “automatic deboners,” a device predicted to replace 70 percent of workers on the line. Meanwhile, advances in Europe have led to “robot cutters” which use 3-D X-ray sensing to determine an animal’s bone structure and slice accordingly. Robot automation lines can handle up to 200 birds a minute, compared to the 140 or so chickens that human workers at a company like Case Farms can manage.

Radiologists

NUMBER OF PEOPLE EMPLOYED NOW: 34,000

AUTOMATION ESTIMATE: Unknown—but rising

Radiologists—physicians who diagnose illnesses and injuries through imaging techniques such as X-rays, CT scans, and MRIs—have some stiff AI competition on the horizon. IBM is in the late stages of developing smart radiology software, dubbed Avicenna (which also uses IBM’s Watson technology), that can interpret test results from images and medical data and suggest treatments; it’s being sold as a radiologist “assistant,” but early test runs have shown its assessments to be on par with human radiologists. Meanwhile, another deep-learning machine system called Enlitic has used its image-recognition capabilities to diagnose cancer with even greater accuracy than human doctors in test studies. It will soon be deployed in medical facilities across China. Experts believe much of radiologists’ work will be replaced by machines—and as one paper said, “The timescale for these disruptions is years, not decades.”

Sewing-Machine Operators

NUMBER OF PEOPLE EMPLOYED NOW: 139,500

AUTOMATION ESTIMATE: 89 percent (124,155 jobs at current levels)

Industrial sewing has been a mash-up of manual labor and machine for more than a century. Robots can cut fabric, but a human still has to feed it into a sewing machine, as flexible materials are a challenge for robots to handle. But recently two companies have tried to combat this issue: the “sewing robots” made by SoftWear Automation use smart cameras to locate fabrics and fine-tune stitching positions, while the Sewbo system stiffens fabric with a thermoplastic solution so it can be manipulated by robots. Due to advances like these—along with those in 3-D printing—some experts expect the garment-manufacturing industry to become fully automated within a decade.

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