Netherlands Robots
Associated Press/Peter Dejong

By Aki Ito

When Minneapolis attorney William Greene faced the task of combing through 1.3 million electronic documents in a recent case, he turned to a computer program. Three associates selected relevant documents from a sample, "teaching" their reasoning to the computer. The software's algorithms then sorted the remaining material by importance.

"We were able to get the information we needed after reviewing only 2.3 percent of the documents," said Greene, a partner at law firm Stinson Leonard Street.

Artificial intelligence has arrived in the American workplace, spawning tools that replicate human judgments that were too complicated and subtle to distill into instructions for a computer. Algorithms that "learn" from past examples relieve engineers of the need to write out every command. The advances, coupled with mobile robots wired with this intelligence, make it likely that occupations employing almost half of today's U.S. workers, ranging from loan officers to cab drivers and real estate agents, become possible to automate in the next decade or two, according to a study done at the University of Oxford in the U.K.

Change Will Happen Faster, to a Greater Variety of Jobs

"These transitions have happened before," said Carl Benedikt Frey, co-author of the study and a research fellow at the Oxford Martin Programme on the Impacts of Future Technology. "What's different this time is that technological change is happening even faster, and it may affect a greater variety of jobs."

It's a transition on the heels of an information-technology revolution that's already left a profound imprint on employment across the globe. For both physical and mental labor, computers and robots replaced tasks that could be specified in step-by-step instructions -- jobs that involved routine responsibilities that were fully understood. That eliminated work for typists, travel agents and a whole array of middle-class earners over a single generation.

Yet even increasingly powerful computers faced a mammoth obstacle: They could execute only what they're explicitly told. It was a nightmare for engineers trying to anticipate every command necessary to get software to operate vehicles or accurately recognize speech. That kept many jobs in the exclusive province of human labor -- until recently. Frey is convinced of the broader reach of technology now because of advances in machine learning, a branch of artificial intelligence that has software "learn" how to make decisions by detecting patterns in those humans have made.

Could You Automate These 702 Occupations?

The approach has powered leapfrog improvements in making self-driving cars and voice search a reality in the past few years. To estimate the impact that will have on 702 U.S. occupations, Frey and colleague Michael Osborne applied some of their own machine learning in a study.

They first looked at detailed descriptions for 70 jobs and classified them as either possible or impossible to computerize. They then fed that data to an algorithm that analyzed what kind of jobs make themselves to automation and predicted probabilities for the remaining 632 professions. The higher that percentage, the sooner computers and robots will be capable of stepping in for human workers. Occupations that employed about 47 percent of Americans in 2010 scored high enough to rank in the risky category, meaning they could be possible to automate "perhaps over the next decade or two," their analysis, released in September, showed.

"My initial reaction was, wow, can this really be accurate?" said Frey, who's a Ph.D. economist. "Some of these occupations that used to be safe havens for human labor are disappearing one by one."

Algorithms, Not Loan Officers

Loan officers are among the most susceptible professions, at a 98 percent probability, according to Frey's estimates. Inroads are already being made by Daric Inc., an online peer-to-peer lender partially funded by former Wells Fargo Chairman Richard Kovacevich. Begun in November, it doesn't employ a single loan officer. It probably never will. The startup's weapon: an algorithm that learned what kind of person made for a safe borrower in the past, constantly updates its understanding of who is creditworthy as more customers repay or default on their debt and approves financing and interest rates.

The result: An interest rate that's typically 8.8 percentage points lower than from a credit card, according to Daric. "The algorithm is the loan officer," said Greg Ryan, the 29-year-old chief executive officer of the Redwood City, Calif., company that consists of him and five programmers. "We don't have overhead, and that means we can pass the savings on to our customers."

Similar technology is transforming what is often the most expensive part of litigation, during which attorneys pore over e-mails, spreadsheets, social media posts and other records to build their arguments. Each new lawsuit was considered too nuanced for a standard set of sorting rules, and the string of keywords lawyers suggested before every case still missed too many smoking guns. The reading got so costly that many law firms farmed out the initial sorting to lower-paid contractors.

The key to automate some of this was the old adage to show not tell -- to have trained attorneys illustrate to the software the kind of documents that make for gold. Programs developed by companies such as San Francisco-based Recommind then run massive statistics to predict which files expensive lawyers shouldn't waste time reading. It took Greene's team of lawyers 600 hours to get through the 1.3 million documents with the help of Recommind's software. That task, assuming a speed of 100 documents per hour, could take 13,000 hours if humans had to read all of them.

Robot Transporters, Taxis and Trucks

"It doesn't mean you need zero people, but it's fewer people than you used to need," said Daniel Martin Katz, a Michigan State University professor who teaches legal analytics. "It's definitely a transformation for getting people that first job while they're trying to gain additional skills as lawyers."

Smart software is transforming the world of manual labor as well, propelling improvements in autonomous cars that make it likely machines can replace taxi drivers and heavy truck drivers in the next two decades, according to Frey's study.

One application already here: Aethons self-navigating TUG robots that transport soiled linens, drugs and meals in now more than 140 hospitals, predominantly in the U.S. When Pittsburgh-based Aethon first installs its robots in new facilities, humans walk the machines around. It would have been impossible to have engineers pre-program all the necessary steps, according to Chief Executive Officer Aldo Zini. "Every building we encounter is different," said Zini. "It's an infinite number" of potential contingencies and "you could never ahead of time try to program everything in. That would be a massive effort. We had to be able to adapt and learn as we go."

To be sure, employers won't necessarily replace their staff with computers just because it becomes technically feasible to do so, Frey said. It could remain cheaper for some time to employ low-wage workers than invest in expensive robots. Consumers may prefer interacting with people than with self-service kiosks, while government regulators could choose to require human supervision of high-stakes decisions.

This is 'Many Decades' Away, One Expert Believes -- Phew!

Even more, recent advances still don't mean computers are nearing human-level cognition that would enable them to replicate most jobs. That's at least "many decades" away, according to Andrew Ng, director of the Stanford Artificial Intelligence Laboratory near Palo Alto, Calif. Machine-learning programs are best at specific routines with lots of data to train on and whose answers can be gleaned from the past.

"This stuff works best on fairly structured problems," said Frank Levy, a professor emeritus at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who has extensively researched technology's impact on employment. "Where there's more flexibility needed and you don't have all the information in advance, it's a problem."

That means the positions of Greene and other senior attorneys, whose responsibilities range from synthesizing persuasive narratives to earning the trust of their clients, won't disappear for some time. Less certain are prospects for those specializing in lower-paid legal work like document reading, or in jobs that involve other relatively repetitive tasks.

As more of the world gets digitized and the cost to store and process that information continues to decline, artificial intelligence will become even more pervasive in everyday life, says Ng, also co-founder of online education provider Coursera. "There will always be work for people who can synthesize information, think critically, and be flexible in how they act in different situations. [Still] the jobs of yesterday won't the same as the jobs of tomorrow."

Workers will likely need to find vocations involving more cognitively complex tasks that machines can't touch. Those positions also typically require more schooling, said Frey. "It's a race between technology and education."

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Betty Nyne

Too many Luddites here. No one was afraid when most of our manufacturing jobs got off shored 10 years ago. So why are they afraid of robots doing manufacturing right here on our own soil where they will need to be installed, maintained, fixed, programmed, fueled etc., etc., etc.? Those would be jobs for US citizens, right here in the good old USA.

March 14 2014 at 2:25 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Its a real issue. I taught robotics to students and we always debated the pros and cons of this technology. It always came down too people like the service it could possibly provide; such as never getting sick, doesnt complain, talk back or complain. Can work 24/7 for no pay or benefits. Problem was, what are people suppose to do to earn a living? Its a problem that must be debated through politics as this technology evolves. Their are people earning a living right now whose job it is to develop robots whether we like it or not.
Do we just enjoy life each day because we no longer have to work? If robots do the work of people, do we just pick products or services we want that make us happy for free? What happens when these things become smarter than people? Will they decide that we are useless and turn on us? Can man create something that is perfect even though we arent?

March 13 2014 at 4:26 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

It's great that man is comming us with differant ways to replace man in the workiong force. I want to try and understand this as I am puzzled who is going to pick up the taxes loses theat this creats? With the world population growing at a rate that soon the Earth will not be able to feed what happens to all the people that will be left with no jobs, no health insurance, (If you don't have a job you can't afford to live or pay for anything) So what happens then? Nice to have someone do the dirty work for you but who will pay the bills, at the rate our Politicians are spending our money and putting us into debt deeper and deeper each day what is going to happen? Just saying here.

March 13 2014 at 4:13 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Although I agree, it could take jobs where jobs are needed.

Maybe if you all would stop having ridiculous sized family's pumping out child after child to grow up pumping out child after child.

Too Many People:
1. Too many Problems
2. To much waste
3. To much demand
4. Not enough work
5. Not enough resources - so you produce generic, fake resources. Yeah, that's so healthy, right?

Need I go on?
Just saying.
Problems are elsewhere.

March 13 2014 at 3:57 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

As if we have just TOO MANY people with jobs already right? Maybe put them at McDonalds I'm sure they wont DEMAND $15 per hour! I got the feeling these will take the place of folks that are making a decent wage now and further destroy our economy! Alot of my work as a welder was cut when we got some robots BUT when they mess up its usually pretty bad and we have to repair the bad welds! But a few welders had to take a less paying job due to this! :(

March 13 2014 at 3:48 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Why are we doing this. People need jobs to live and support themselves or their families. If we do everything by automation then how will people survive. We don't need celebrities just make a look a like of them and let them do the picture. They will be poor like the rest of us. You go through hell going through a supermarket self help line and you don't even get a discount bagging and doing your own checkout. Americans have to wake up and start fighting for things or we are really going down the road to proverty. Glad I'm alive now as I hate to see this place in 25 or 50 years.

March 13 2014 at 3:44 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Easy. Dont ever buy nor invest in anything that has anything to do with robots. Problem solved.

March 13 2014 at 3:38 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

exactly about inventing a robot can buy... if everyone stops purchases the companies won't use robots anymore...people are the key to power...

March 13 2014 at 3:25 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply


March 13 2014 at 3:12 PM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to partsautomall's comment

Sign you up for what ? unemployment, welfare, food stamps, they don't need you, they have a machine to do your job. There's very few things that will be safe from it.

March 13 2014 at 4:51 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Two CEO's come together to debate the cost of robotics and human labor. The cost of maintaining and hiring technicians was slightly lower than paying human workers. They saw that they quality was much much higher with the robots as well. By putting two and two together, they decided to go with foreign labor. It's a lot cheaper build a new factory (or turn an existing building into on) with limited building rights, insanely cheap to pay the workers (specially with no minimal wages), they don't have to worry about pollution fines (they can just throw it in their rivers, a plus for CEO's that like to fish) and the quality, well who cares, if the product fails a person can buy it another for a cheap price.

March 13 2014 at 2:51 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply