Practically human: Can machines do your job?

Associated Press photo by GOSIA WOZNIACKA -- PG&E employee Art Liscano, 66, reads a meter at a house in Clovis, Calif. Liscano's department employed 50 full-time meter readers just six years ago. Automated meters have reduced that to has six.
Associated Press photo by GOSIA WOZNIACKA -- PG&E employee Art Liscano, 66, reads a meter at a house in Clovis, Calif. Liscano's department employed 50 full-time meter readers just six years ago. Automated meters have reduced that to has six.

Art Liscano knows he’s an endangered species in the job market: He’s a meter reader in Fresno, Calif. For 26 years, he’s driven from house to house, checking how much electricity Pacific Gas & Electric customers have used.

But PG&E doesn’t need many people like Liscano making rounds anymore. Every day, the utility replaces 1,200 old-fashioned meters with digital versions that can collect information without human help, generate more accurate power bills, even send an alert if the power goes out.

“I can see why technology is taking over,” said Liscano, 66, who earns $67,000 a year. “We can see the writing on the wall.”

His department employed 50 full-time meter readers just six years ago. Now, it has six.

From giant corporations to university libraries to startup businesses, employers are using rapidly improving technology and software that is getting more powerful, cheaper and easier to use and can do tasks that humans used to do.

To better understand the impact of technology on jobs, The Associated Press analyzed employment data from 20 countries. The AP also interviewed economists, technology experts, robot manufacturers, software developers, CEOs and workers who are competing with smarter machines.

The AP found that almost all the jobs disappearing are the midskill, midpay jobs — jobs with salaries ranging from $38,000 to $68,000 in the U.S. — that form the backbone of the middle class in developed countries in Europe, North America and Asia.

In the U.S., more than 1.1 million secretaries vanished from the job market between 2000 and 2010, their job security shattered by software that lets bosses field calls themselves and arrange their own meetings and trips. Over the same period, the number of telephone operators plunged by 64 percent, word processors and typists by 63 percent, travel agents by 46 percent and bookkeepers by 26 percent, according to Labor Department statistics.

Does technology also create jobs? Of course. But at nowhere near the rate that it’s killing them off .

Three technological factors are reshaping the economies and job markets in developed countries.

BIG DATA: At the heart of the biggest technological changes today is what computer scientists call “Big Data.” Computers thrive on information, and they’re feasting on an unprecedented amount of it — from the Internet, from Twitter messages and other social media sources, from the barcodes and sensors being slapped on everything .

According to a Harvard Business Review article by Andrew McAfee and Erik Brynjolfsson of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, more information now crosses the Internet every second than the entire Internet stored 20 years ago. Every hour, they note, Wal-Mart collects 50 million filing cabinets’ worth of information from its dealings with customers.

Computers can sift through mountains of information and deliver valuable insights to decision-makers in businesses and government agencies.

“What’s different to me is the raw amount of data out there because of the Web, because of these devices, because we’re attaching sensors to things,” said McAfee, principal research scientist at MIT’s Center for Digital Business and the co-author of “Race Against the Machine.”

“The fuel of science is data,” he said. “We have so much more of that rocket fuel.”

Software entrepreneur Martin Ford said “organizations are collecting huge amounts of data about their internal operations and about what their employees are doing.” The computers can use that information to “figure out how to do a great many jobs” that humans do now.

THE CLOUD: In the old days — say, five years ago — businesses that had to track lots of information needed to install servers in their offices and hire technical staff to run them. Now, companies can store information on the Internet and grab it when they need it.

Hilliard’s Beer in Seattle, founded in October 2011, bought software from the German company SAP that allows it to use cloud computing to track sales and inventory and to produce the reports that federal regulators require.

“It automates a lot of the stuff that we do,” owner Ryan Hilliard said. “I know what it takes to run a server. I didn’t want to hire an IT guy.”

SMARTER MACHINES: Though many are still working out the kinks, software is making machines and devices smarter every year. They can learn your habits, recognize your voice, do the things that travel agents, secretaries and interpreters have traditionally done.

With software becoming easier to use, consumers are increasingly more comfortable relying on them to transact business — eliminating jobs of bank tellers, ticket agents and checkout cashiers.

People who used to say, “Let me talk to a person. I don’t want to deal with this machine” are now using check-in kiosks at airports and self-checkout lanes at supermarkets and drugstores, said Jeff Connally, CEO of CMIT Solutions, a technology consultancy.

So machines are getting smarter and people are more comfortable using them. Those factors, combined with the financial pressures of the Great Recession, have led companies and government agencies to cut jobs the past five years, yet continue to operate just as well.

How is that happening?

The software was nothing fancy, just a collection of forms and pull-down menus, but the impact was huge. The shift from paper eliminated the need for two dozen transcribers and filing staff and freed desk-bound officers to return to the streets.

Verizon also makes it easier for customers to deal with problems themselves without calling a repairman. From their homes, consumers can open Verizon’s In-home Agent software on their computers. The system can determine why a cable TV box isn’t working or why the Internet connection broke — and fix the problem in minutes.

Unmanned trains already have arrived. The United Arab Emirates introduced the world’s longest automated rail system — 32 miles — in Dubai in 2009.

Driverless cars will have a revolutionary impact on traffic one day — and the job market. In the United States alone, 3.1 million people drive trucks for a living, 573,000 drive buses, 342,000 drive taxis or limousines. All those jobs will be threatened by automated vehicles.

AP business writers Christopher S. Rugaber in Washington, Youkyung Lee in Seoul, Elaine Kurtenbach in Tokyo and
Toby Sterling in Amsterdam contributed to this report.