WASHINGTON – Art Liscano knows he’s an endangered species in the job market: He’s a meter reader in Fresno, Calif.
For 26 years, he has 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,” says 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 to do tasks that humans used to do. That means millions of workers are caught in a competition they can’t win against machines that keep getting more powerful, cheaper and easier to use.
To better understand the impact of technology on jobs, the Associated Press analyzed employment data from 20 countries, and interviewed economists, technology experts, robot manufacturers, software developers, CEOs and workers who are competing with machines that are getting ever “smarter.”
The AP found that almost all the jobs disappearing are in industries that pay middle-class wages, ranging from $38,000 to $68,000 – jobs that form the backbone of the middle class in North America, Europe and Asia.
“Everything that humans can do, a machine can do,” says Moshe Vardi, a computer scientist at Rice University in Houston. “Things are happening that look like science fiction.”
Google and Toyota are rolling out cars that can drive themselves. The Pentagon deploys robots to find roadside explosives in Afghanistan and wages war from the air with remote-controlled drones. North Carolina State University has introduced a high-tech library where robots – “bookBots” instead of humans– retrieve books for students. The library’s 1.5 million books are no longer displayed on shelves; they’re kept in 18,000 metal bins that require one-ninth the space.
Technology’s advance is producing wondrous products and services that once were unthinkable. But it’s also showing how easily people can be replaced by machines.