Practically human: Can smart machines do your job?

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In Europe, technology is shaking up human resources departments across the continent. “Nowadays, employees are expected to do a lot of what we used to think of as HR from behind their own computer,” says Ron van Baden, a negotiator with the Dutch labor union federation FNV. “It used to be that you could walk into the employee affairs office with a question about your pension, or the terms of your contract. That’s all gone and automated.”

Two-thirds of the 7.6 million middle-class jobs that vanished in Europe were the victims of technology, estimates economist Maarten Goos at Belgium’s University of Leuven.

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

Here’s a look at three technological factors 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 from boxes of Huggies diapers to stamping machines in car plants.

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 Stores Inc. collects 50 million filing cabinets’ worth of information from its dealings with customers.

No human could make sense of so much data. But computers can. They can sift through mountains of information and deliver valuable insights to decision-makers in businesses and government agencies. For instance, Wal-Mart’s analysis of Twitter traffic helped convince it to increase the amount of “Avengers” merchandise it offered when the superhero movie came out last year and to introduce a private-label corn chip in the American Southwest.

Google’s automated car can only drive by itself by tapping into Google’s vast collection of maps and using information pouring in from special sensors to negotiate traffic.

“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,” says 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 says. “We have so much more of that rocket fuel.”

So far, public attention has focused on the potential threats to privacy as companies use technology to gather clues about their customers’ buying habits and lifestyles.

“What is less visible,” says software entrepreneur Martin Ford, “is that 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.

Gary Mintchell, editor in chief of Automation World, recalls starting work in manufacturing years ago as a “grunge, white-collar worker.” He’d walk around the factory floor with a clipboard, recording information from machines, then go back to an office and enter the data by hand onto a spreadsheet.

Now that grunge work is conducted by powerful “operations management” software systems developed by businesses such as General Electric Intelligent Platforms in Charlottesville, Va. These systems continuously collect, analyze and summarize in digestible form information about all aspects of factory operations _energy consumption, labor costs, quality problems, customer orders.

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