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Technology available today could automate 45 percent of the jobs people are paid to perform across all occupations. By the early 2030's, 38 percent of current jobs in the U.S. could be automated and one industry could be hit particularly hard.
Since at least the industrial revolution, Americans have worried about technology taking their jobs. Past inventions have ended up creating new jobs, not just destroying old ones, but economists worry that this time may be different, reports Tony Dokoupil.
In Maplewood, New Jersey, Tim Jianni works the register of his family-owned convenience store – just as he has since high school.
"Here, we know all of our customers by name and I have papers or candies, I know what they get. I put it right there so that it is ready for them, and it makes them feel good," Jianni said. "I just, you could see when they come in they have that smile on their face."
One day, Jianni hopes to pass the job to a new generation, keeping it in the family or at least keeping it human.
Other retailers have a very different dream. For example, an autonomous, multilingual robot is designed to help customers at the home improvement chain, Lowe's, to get their shopping done as quickly as possible.
"You can talk to it and it talks back to you," said Kyle Nel, the executive director of Lowe's innovation labs.
"It's basically doing indoor mapping and figuring out where it is. Where you are," Nel explained. "It will actually help you find the thing you're looking for."
The machine is one of 22 that the company is proudly testing in Northern California.
"Oh my gosh, there is an autonomous robot inside of a Lowe's, awesome," Nel said.
But what may look "awesome" for Lowe's and many of the nation's other businesses could spell anxiety for American workers.
For decades, automation has eaten up more American jobs than global trade, according to economists, who warn that the job losses may be poised to accelerate.
"I don't think we've begun to grapple what that would mean for the economy if these jobs start to really go away in vast numbers," said LinkedIn managing editor Chip Cutter.
Cutter, who has been studying automation, says cashiers and retail workers may be the hit hardest and comprise the single biggest job category in America.
When asked by Dokoupil whether these jobs could go away in the next two decades, Cutter responded, "That's the fear.'
At a Stop and Shop in Bayonne, New Jersey, customers can be their own cashiers - scanning, bagging and swiping their credit cards.
Customer Kelsey O'Donnell says she recommends scanners to others,
"This is a lot easier to get out the store a little quicker," O'Donnell said.
At an Amazon concept store in Seattle, sensors allow customers to shop, walk out and pay via a wireless account.
"That's the technology that a lot of people say may more resemble the future that we are gonna see," Cutter said.
But many of the cashiers and retail workers of the world aren't buying it. They think the robot revolution is overblown.
"A robot is just, they are not going to give you that personal interaction," Jianni said. "That's what people want."
Judy Rubashkin works down the street at Words bookstore.
"People still like to talk to somebody. I don't think you can replicate that," Rubashkin said.
While Nel is excited about the future of their robot -- or "Lowebot" -- he says the store has no plans to replace human workers.
"Honestly and truly the robots are just a support system," Nel said.