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Robots on the rise in the workplace

Technology has always been one of the great drivers of the U.S. economy, constantly creating jobs and eliminating some in the process. But recently, MIT professors tell Steve Kroft, technology has been eliminating more jobs than it creates -- a net loss that poses a danger to the delicate economic recovery. Kroft's report on this technological revolution, often characterized by advanced robotics, will be broadcast on 60 Minutes Sunday, Jan. 13 at 8 p.m. ET/PT.

"Technology is always creating jobs. It's always destroying jobs. But right now the pace [of destroying them] is accelerating," says MIT professor Eric Brynjolfsson. "So as a consequence, we are not creating jobs at the same pace that we need to."

Fewer Americans on a percentage basis are holding jobs now than 20 years ago. Some examples include the elimination of sales clerks and bank tellers by cash machines and Internet shopping. Says Brynjolfsson, "There are lots of examples of routine, middle-skilled jobs that involve relatively structured tasks...that are being eliminated the fastest," he tells Kroft.

The irony is that the economy is growing. "Our economy is bigger than it was before the start of the Great Recession," says Andrew McAfee, also of MIT. "Corporate profits are back. Business investment in hardware and software is back higher than it's ever been. What's not back is the jobs."

One reason for this was automated warehouses, which surprised McAfee. The economy is making plenty of goods, but requires a lot less people to store and ship them. "There are heavily automated warehouses where there are either few or no people around," he says.

Kroft visits a huge warehouse in Devens, Mass., where about 100 employees work with 69 suitcase-size robots that navigate the massive facility, moving product from shelf to shipping point faster and better than humanly possible. Customer orders are transmitted from a computer to wifi antennas that direct the robots to the merchandise, guiding them across an electronic checkerboard with bar codes embedded in the floor panels. Once the robot arrives at its destination, it picks up an entire shelf of merchandise and delivers it to the packing station. It then speeds off to its next assignment. The small orange robots are in many facilities across the country.

Bruce Welty, who runs the warehouse, points to one of his workers and tells Kroft, "In a typical warehouse, she would have to walk from location to location [to make] a number of totes...the innovation here is that the product comes to her." Welty estimates that to do the same amount of work with just people, he would need to hire one and a half persons for each robot, so the robots allow him to operate with less than half the amount of people such a facility would normally employ.

McAfee sees this trend of technology eliminating jobs continuing for some time "When I see what computers and robots can do right now, I project that forward for two, three more generations, I think we're going to find ourselves in a world where the work as we currently think about it it, is largely done by machines," he tells Kroft.

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