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Will smart machines create a world without work?

January 24, 2013 • Business


ADVANCE FOR RELEASE UNTIL 12:01 A.M. EST, FRIDAY, JAN 25, 2013. THIS PHOTO MAY NOT BE POSTED ONLINE, BROADCAST OR PUBLISHED BEFORE 12:01 A.M. This June 6, 2008 image provided by General Motors shows an illustration of all-around collision warning in a driverless vehicle. Two years after Google invented one, California and other U.S. states are rewriting the rules of the road to make way for driverless cars, leaving a growing number of technologists and economists to wonder what happens to the millions of people who make a living driving cars and trucks. (AP Photo/General Motors)

WASHINGTON (AP) — They seem right out of a Hollywood fantasy, and they are: Cars that drive themselves have appeared in movies like “I, Robot” and the television show “Knight Rider.”

Now, three years after Google invented one, automated cars could be on their way to a freeway near you. In the U.S., California and other states are rewriting the rules of the road to make way for driverless cars. Just one problem: What happens to the millions of people who make a living driving cars and trucks — jobs that always have seemed sheltered from the onslaught of technology?

“All those jobs are going to disappear in the next 25 years,” predicts Moshe Vardi, a computer scientist at Rice University in Houston. “Driving by people will look quaint; it will look like a horse and buggy.”

If automation can unseat bus drivers, urban deliverymen, long-haul truckers, even cabbies, is any job safe?

Vardi poses an equally scary question: “Are we prepared for an economy in which 50 percent of people aren’t working?”

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EDITOR’S NOTE: Last in a three-part series on the loss of middle-class jobs in the wake of the Great Recession, and the role of technology.

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An Associated Press analysis of employment data from 20 countries found that millions of midskill, midpay jobs already have disappeared over the past five years, and they are the jobs that form the backbone of the middle class in developed countries.

That experience has left a growing number of technologists and economists wondering what lies ahead. Will middle-class jobs return when the global economy recovers, or are they lost forever because of the advance of technology? The answer may not be known for years, perhaps decades. Experts argue among themselves whether the job market will recover, muddle along or get much worse.

To understand their arguments, it helps to understand the past.

Every time a transformative invention took hold over the past two centuries — whether the steamboat in the 1820s or the locomotive in the 1850s or the telegraph or the telephone — businesses would disappear and workers would lose jobs. But new businesses would emerge that employed even more.

The combustion engine decimated makers of horse-drawn carriages, saddles, buggy whips and other occupations that depended on the horse trade. But it also resulted in huge auto plants that employed hundreds of thousands of workers, who were paid enough to help create a prosperous middle class.

“What has always been true is that technology has destroyed jobs but also always created jobs,” says Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz of Columbia University. “You know the old story we tell about (how) the car destroyed blacksmiths and created the auto industry.”

The astounding capabilities of computer technology are forcing some mainstream economists to rethink the conventional wisdom about the Login to read more

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