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Could a robot do your job?

(MoneyWatch) A recent article in Bloomberg BusinessWeek made an interesting argument: This is a man-vs.-machine recovery. Output is up and manufacturers have (until a recent slump) been chugging along. But employers haven't been hiring that many people because they're using robots instead.

"As digital technology spreads, the classic relationship between rising output and rising employment -- known as Okun's Law -- now appears to be broken," writes David J. Lynch. "If the law, which postulates that every 3 percent gain in output should reduce the jobless rate by a percentage point, still applied, then today's nearly 9 percent rate would be about 1 percent." Instead, the field of robotics is getting better and better. Robots can work odd hours, don't tire, don't quit on you (at least until they break down) and have less of the human variability that can be problematic when precision is required.

So, you say, why should I care? I'm not working on an assembly line anyway. Which may be true. But there are plenty of white collar jobs that can be done by robots now, too. As the BusinessWeek article points out, "Paralegals can't match software in accurately searching thousands of documents for specific words or patterns. New software apps easily best journeyman sportswriters at penning routine game wrap-ups." If your job is routine in any way, and doesn't require higher-level insight, you could be in for trouble.

But there's no need to panic. A more interesting approach to the question of robotics and technology in general is to ask what routine functions you do that could be outsourced. That will free up mental capacity for your highest value work. In education, the concept of "blended learning" is gaining steam as people realize that programs like DreamBox (for math) or Rosetta Stone (for foreign language) or NoRedInk (for grammar) can deliver a lot of the basic content, generate problem sets and immediately assess children on what they know. That frees up teachers to tutor children one-on-one in the subject material that the software indicates the child doesn't know. In the field of writing, I certainly wouldn't mind if a robot suggested story ideas to me (based on what people are most inclined to click on) and sent me links to articles, sources and statistics relevant to the topic. I have spent incredible amounts of time trying to figure out who are the top authorities in a field, based on who's written books, who's frequently referenced, and so forth. Google helps, but a better source-finding technology could dig even deeper. And send me the person's email address. That way I could spend more time thinking up good questions for the person, and more time writing.

What functions of your job could a robot do? Which do you wish one would do?

Photo courtesy flickr user ricardodiaz11

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