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Say goodbye to your job: Robots will make it extinct

Automation threatens to take over up to 70 per cent of current occupations by century’s end. Here are 10 vulnerable occupations

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In 1800, nearly three-quarters of Americans worked on farms. Few saw the Industrial Revolution coming, much less the almost-complete mechanization of their jobs. Today, about 1 per cent of the work force is still engaged in farming.
History could repeat. A recent estimate by Wired magazine projects that about three-quarters of the jobs we’re currently doing won’t exist by the end of this century. Just as machines replaced farmers, robots – whether oddly shaped, humanoid or just smart, autonomous computer programs – will take over many existing forms of employment.
It’s not all doom and gloom. Mechanization and automation have historically forced people to think of new and better ways of keeping themselves employed.
Yesterday’s farmer couldn’t have imagined, for example, that his descendants might be sitting in an air-conditioned office hundreds of years later, designing video games for a decent salary, for example.
In that vein, here are 10 jobs on the endangered species list. If you’re in one of these professions, you might want to consider dusting off the old résumé and picking up some new skills. Or just hope that you retire before the robots come for your job. But make no mistake: They are coming.

Graham Hughes/The Globe and Mail

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Writer
Ha ha, right? No seriously – robots are quickly encroaching on that once scholarly, literary profession that elitists have held as uniquely human for hundreds of years. If we thought the Internet was having a bad effect on writing jobs, we haven’t seen anything yet.
Philip M. Parker, a professor of marketing at the INSEAD business school, has created software that can write a non-fiction book in 20 minutes. It’s not just theoretical. Prof. Parker has used the system to write more than 100,000 books for sale on Amazon, with a further 700,000 attributed to his company Icon Group International.
True, many of those are extremely specialized fare that very few people would want to read – as in The 2007-2012 World Outlook for Wood Toilet Seats – but his point has been made.
Meanwhile, the 320-page True Love, written by a computer, hit stores in Russia in 2008, while Thomson Reuters has been using algorithms to write earnings reports since 2006.
Prof. Parker’s next foray, meanwhile, is romance novels. Will human writers still be the only ones capable of writing emotion-laden stories that touch the heart and inspire the mind? Maybe, maybe not.
But a robot can surely write the next summer blockbuster movie.

The Associated Press

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Hotel clerk
There’s little that’s more robotic than checking into a hotel. “Hello, how are you? Passport and credit card please. You’re in room 301, the elevator is on your left. Breakfast is from 6 till 10.” Do we really need humans to do this?
The Yotel in New York is ahead of the curve with its fully automated check-in.
Touch-screen kiosks greet guests and take care of all the normal functions, meaning you can get up to your room without ever seeing another person.
More impressive is checking out. If you’ve got a bag you’d like to store for the day, the Yobot – a giant robot arm, similar to those used in car assembly factories – will pick it up and hoist it into a file-folder-like wall shelf.
Now if only the Yobot could hail you a taxi … oh, wait, we won’t need that soon either.

J.P. MOCZULSKI/Agence France-Presse

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Driver
Of the top five causes of death in North America, there’s only one that isn’t a disease: traffic accidents. That proves one thing – despite what people believe about their own skills, people are terrible drivers.
It’s no surprise, then, that robot cars are on the move. Research started with the U.S. military but has since moved into the consumer world, with online giant Google succeeding in making self-driving vehicles street-legal in Nevada and California.
Both Toyota and Audi have legitimized the field with recently announced autonomous vehicle programs, with everyone involved saying that true robot cars – machines that drive themselves with only minimal human assistance required – will arrive faster than anyone expects.
Truck and taxi drivers should be particularly concerned, since robots will be able to do their jobs much better. They’ll be able to connect to the Internet and satellites and find the best routes, and they’ll fully concentrate on their respective jobs – no blabbing away on the phone or falling asleep at the wheel. Robot taxis also won’t be able to scam passengers by taking them on “the scenic route.”
Indeed, once robot cars become commonplace, the notion of owning a vehicle might seem foolish. Why put up with the expense when you can dial up a rental on your smartphone and have it at your door in five minutes?

Konstantin Sutyagin/Getty Images/iStockphoto

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Cook/waiter
It’s only a matter of time before the next fast-food horror story hits: man finds hair in his burger, cook picks nose and puts it on customer’s pizza, employee takes bath in restaurant’s giant kitchen sink.
It really makes you wonder why chains still use such unreliable – and unpredictable – labour.
Anyone who has ever worked at a fast-food job knows it’s about the most robotic kind of employment there is. As assembly machines get smaller, cheaper and better, large-scale replacement is therefore likely.
It started with vending machines such as the strangely named Let’s Pizza in Italy, which can assemble food from scratch for just a few euros, and has progressed to fully automated outlets such as the Robot Restaurant in Harbin, China.
The restaurant employs 20 robots as waiters, cooks and bus boys.
Food aficionados are snobby about their particular interest. It’s true that humans will probably still make good chefs – the people who create new food concoctions for the rest of us to enjoy – but the majority of those around them can and will be replaced.

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Astronaut
A very small percentage of the population gets to be an astronaut, so this one shouldn’t worry too many people.
Still, as NASA and other space agencies have learned, it doesn’t make a lot of sense to send humans on long space exploration missions. It takes too long and costs too much – especially bringing them back.
That’s why there are robot rovers exploring Mars and why NASA has been investing in Robonaut, a humanoid machine capable of carrying out delicate maintenance work in space, since 1997.
Now, the Toyota-created Kirobo is on deck to launch up to the International Space Station (ISS) in August to engage in the first “human-robot conversation experiment.” The one-foot-tall, toy-like robot will test how autonomous machines can interact with humans, perhaps with an eye to replacing them as ISS attendants.
The whole thing would conjure images of 2001’s ominous space-station robot Hal, if only Kirobo weren’t so darn cute.

NASA/Reuters

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Soldier
Back down on solid ground, the move to replace human soldiers is proceeding apace. Around 60 countries have military drones in operation, with at least 16 of those having lethal capability.
The jury is out on whether this is a good thing. On the one hand, a future where robot soldiers kill only each other rather than humans would certainly be desirable, but on the other hand, movies like The Terminator raise possible horrors. What happens if those autonomous armed robots go awry, or make mistakes?
So far, humans are mostly being kept in the loop on decisions that involve firing weapons, but that could easily change, if it hasn’t already.
Autonomous, self-aiming turrets, for example, have been deployed on the border between North and South Korea.
The encroaching reality has prompted advocates such as Human Rights Watch to call for a moratorium on armed, autonomous robots until the whole matter can be studied and, if necessary, laws enacted. With some countries such as the United States wanting to limit their own casualties and others, including Israel, looking to make up for numerical disadvantages, the number – and autonomy – of robot soldiers is only going to increase.

BAZ RATNER/Reuters

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Firefighter
The military has a 3D policy when it comes to robots – if a job is dull, dirty or dangerous, machines will be considered as replacements. One of the more hazardous tasks in the military, aside from actual battle, is fighting fires that commonly occur on ships.
To that end, the U.S. Navy is developing the SAFFiR, or shipboard autonomous firefighting robot, a humanoid machine that can keep its balance on the sea, climb ladders and throw extinguishing grenades.
On a smaller scale, researchers at Purdue University recently deployed a smaller fire-fighting robot to battle a blaze at a tire-processing facility in Hoopeston, Ill. The two-foot-tall machine wheeled in a fire hose and accessed parts of the building that were too dangerous for humans to enter.
The robot was controlled by remote control, but with infrared sensors that help it detect hot spots, the move is on to make it more autonomous.

Deborah Baic/The Globe and Mail

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Doctor
For much of medical history, doctors have had to rely on guesswork. Sure, they’ve been able to make educated diagnoses of patients based on the symptoms they observed and were told about, but there have also been many factors that could result in wrong conclusions.
Patients may not accurately assess or track their problems and doctors can easily mistake the signs of one illness for another.
With the use of sensors and digital tracking of symptoms growing, the data part of that is getting better and more accurate – now if only the diagnosis segment could also improve.
Enter robot doctors, which can crunch all that information and cross-analyze every likely ailment. Remember Watson, the supercomputer that beat out a pair of humans on Jeopardy? That’s what he – er, it – is doing right now.
Computing power and robotic algorithms will inevitably prove to be more efficient at diagnosing problems than their human counterparts, who often rely on fallible memory and intuition.
That goes double for surgeons. Robots don’t get shaky hands and, with all manner of sensors at their disposal, are less likely to cut into the wrong parts of anatomy.
In 2012, the Da Vinci robot performed 400,000 surgeries – mostly hysterectomies and gallbladder operations – which is nearly quadruple the number it did in 2008. A human is still in the loop with this particular robot, but with advancements coming quickly, the only question is: For how long?

Sándor Fizli/The Globe and Mail

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Farmer
Remember that 1 per cent of people who are still employed in farming? That, too, is set to shrink as the agricultural sector adopts even more automation.
The Queensland University of Technology in Australia, for one, is testing AgBot, a golf-cart-sized robot that can navigate around a farm with sensors and spray weeds while they are still very young plants. That’s saving farmers having to do so manually by trucking around in their tractors.
Meanwhile, in Iowa, inventor David Dorhout is tweaking Prospero, which would be the first of a swarm of robots that could autonomously plant seeds at their optimal spacing and depths.
People have been worrying for ages about the world running out of food because of a constantly growing population, but it’s advances such as these that have so far allowed farmers to keep pace.
With the population expected to continue growing until at least 2050, additional farming technology that further increases land efficiency and productivity – including robots – won’t just be nice to have, they’ll be a must-have.

Diego Guidice/Bloomberg

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Robot maker
If there’s one job that robots won’t take from humans, it’s actually making the machines themselves, right? Wrong.
Self-assembling robots are already a reality. Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania in 2008 created a modular robot that could reassemble itself after being kicked apart.
The three block-like sections could detect each other, then roll and crawl back into close proximity, whereupon magnets put them back together again. More recently, a pair of Harvard and Massachusetts Institute of Technology students showed off an inch-worm-like three-dimensional-printed robot at a conference in Germany last June. The robot can assemble itself after being printed using “shape memory” characteristics embedded in its own polymers.
The combination of self-manufacturing with self-assembly means robots won’t even need humans to build themselves for much longer, a thought that is sure to send shivers through anyone who has seen The Terminator.

Robert Zuckerman

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