White-Collar Robots Are Coming for Jobs

Until recently, most white-collar, service-sector and professional jobs were shielded from automation by humans’ cognitive monopoly. Computers couldn’t think, so jobs that required any type of thinking—nuclear physics professor, florist and everything in between—required a human. But a form of artificial intelligence called “machine learning” has given computers skills like reading, writing, speaking and recognizing subtle patterns. Thinking computers like Amelia are opening a new phase of automation and bringing the pluses and minuses to a whole new class of workers—those who work in offices rather than farms and factories. These people are largely unprepared.

U.S. workers today also face direct wage competition from highly skilled, low-cost foreign workers working (virtually) in U.S. offices. Web platforms like Upwork—essentially eBayfor freelancing—allow employers to source talent from across the globe, often at a much lower cost. Think of this as telecommuting gone global. Think of it as telemigration. The combination of this new form of globalization with this new form of robotics—call it “globotics”—is really something new. The most obvious difference is that it’s affecting people working in the service sector instead of the manufacturing and agricultural sectors—about 129 million Americans as of last month, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

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