(MoneyWatch) It's another day of government shutdown and hundreds of thousands of federal employees out of work, even if only temporarily. But there are forces that will ultimately turn even more people out of their jobs -- permanently.
That force is robotics. While automation can perform an increasing number of tasks, many people think the effects are limited. After all, if you're in a professional or creative arena, and not assembling nuts and bolts on a factory floor, you're safe, right? Not any more. The increased sophistication of software and hardware are already replacing jobs that not long ago many would have assumed beyond the capacity of mechanical devices.
IBM's Watson, which handily beat humans on Jeopardy, is already being focused on medical diagnosis. But forget the potential use of robotics and artificial intelligence in medicine in the dim future. As the Wall Street Journal reported, Johnson & Johnson (JNJ) has a new system called Sedasys. It can provide anesthesia during a colonoscopy without a doctor and goes to market next year.
Anesthesiologists' services usually cost more than the $200 to $400 generally charged by physicians performing the actual colon-cancer screenings, says health plan CDPHP in New York state. An anesthesiologist's involvement typically adds $600 to $2,000 to the procedure's cost, according to a research letter published online by JAMA Internal Medicine in July.
In comparison, Sedasys-delivered anesthesia would run about $150 per procedure. The American Society of Anesthesiologists has lobbied against the device, but to no avail. Tests on 1,700 patients reportedly didn't yield a single case that required intervention. J&J is also working on a device that could insert tubes into kids' ears to ease infection without the use of general anesthesia or even a hospital's operating room.
Creative activities aren't any safer. A company called Wochit can turn pre-written stories into videos, using images, video clips, and narration, according to AllThingsD. Humans are involved only at two points: to check that all the elements are in place and to do the voiceover narration. (And wait until computer voice generation eliminates that need.) Apparently Yahoo is already using the technology.
Some will argue that the move toward robotics isn't really dire because, as has happened in history in the past, developments in technology replaced the missing jobs with new types. Unfortunately, the current trend today is different than in the past. The gains from productivity are no longer shared evenly among all. For the last 30 years, they have flowed upward. Had they been shared, one could argue that the increased economy activity on the part of consumers would have stimulated the need for more jobs.
But with the current inclinations of corporations, the capital will continue to flow upward, with an emphasis on constantly reducing the cost of doing business and reducing staffing. Although there may be additional jobs to tend and develop machines, these, too, will be highly concentrated.