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Like many technologically savvy startups, Dirk Vander Kooij’s furniture-making company in the Netherlands needs only a skeleton crew _ four people. The hard work at the Eindhoven-based company is carried out by an old industrial robot that Vander Kooij fashioned into a 3D printer. Using plastic recycled from old refrigerators, the machine “prints” furniture _ ranging in price from a $300 chair to a $3,000 lamp _ the way an ordinary printer uses ink to print documents. Many analysts expect 3D printing to revolutionize manufacturing, allowing small firms like Vander Kooij’s to make niche products without hiring many people.

_Google’s driverless car and the Pentagon’s drone aircraft are raising the specter of highways and skies filled with cars and planes that can get around by themselves.

“A pilotless airliner is going to come; it’s just a question of when,” James Albaugh, retired CEO of Boeing Commercial Airlines, said in 2011, according to IEEE Spectrum magazine. “You’ll see it in freighters first, over water probably, landing very close to the shore.”

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

And the trains on several Japanese rail lines run by themselves. Tokyo’s Yurikamome Line, which skirts Tokyo Bay, is completely automated. The line _ named for the black-headed sea gull that is Tokyo’s official bird _ employs only about 60 employees at its 16 stations. “Certainly, using the automated systems does reduce the number of staff we need,” says Katsuya Hagane, the manager in charge of operations at New Transit Yurikamome.

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.

_Phone companies and gas and electric utilities are using technology to reduce their payrolls. Since 2007, for instance, telecommunications giant Verizon has increased its annual revenue 19 percent _ while employing 17 percent fewer workers. The smaller work force partly reflects the shift toward cellphones and away from landlines, which require considerably more maintenance. But even the landlines need less human attention because Verizon is rapidly replacing old-fashioned copper lines with lower-maintenance, fiber-optic cables.

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 is down _ and fix the problem in minutes. The program has been downloaded more than 2 million times, Verizon says.

And then there are the meter readers like PG&E’s Liscano. Their future looks grim.

Southern California Edison finished its digital meter installation program late last year. All but 20,000 of its 5.3 million customers have their power usage beamed directly to the utility.

Nearly all of the 972 meter readers in Southern California Edison’s territory accepted retirement packages or were transferred within the company, says Pat Lavin of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers. But 92 workers are being laid off this month.

“Trying to keep it from happening would have been like the Teamsters in the early 1900s trying to stop the combustion engine,” Lavin says. “You can’t stand in the way of technology.”

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NEXT: Will smart machines create a world without work?

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