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Bridge Michigan
Michigan’s nonpartisan, nonprofit news source

Michigan’s plan for the robot invasion

I suddenly realized a walk through a typical day in my life serves to illustrate the coming labor market disaster, something that may cost the jobs of millions of our fellow citizens:

Up at 6:00 a.m. Go down the driveway to pick up the morning paper, delivered as usual by the carrier. With the decline of print newspaper readers, his route is much smaller than it used to be. But he's reliable and friendly. The day of printed daily newspapers being delivered by carrier, however, is clearly coming to an end.

Off to work. I have a morning meeting with a guy who takes a cab to my office using a GPS to find the route. The cab waits for the return trip until the meeting is over. But in reality, jobs like his are also dwindling relics of the past. The man visiting me could have taken an Uber instead – and we could just as well have used a conferencing computer to conduct our meeting.

Lunch: Pizza delivered by a nice man in a uniform and a heated delivery bag. He too used a GPS to track his route to reduce downtime and costly waiting.

During mid-afternoon, FedEx delivers a small packet of documents. The delivery guy says business is down - people increasingly are faxing documents (another technology that is itself starting to wane) or scanning them and sending then via computer.

The U S. mail arrives around 2 p.m. We have a highly reliable carrier. She reports first-class mail use is going down and "snail mail" is increasingly dominated by delivery of magazines and pre-printed advertising brochures. She also wonders when "somebody is going to figure out how to use an automated mail truck to handle delivery."

Supper: Kathy and I typically make it together, and it's my turn to do the shopping. We don't have a supermarket food delivery service in our neighborhood yet, but places like Amazon are already experimenting with the service. And there's talk of home delivery via drone. The checkout lady at the store helps me as I run my purchases through a scanner – though it isn’t clear how long there will be human checkout assistance at all. Eventually, I get an automated receipt after paying with my credit card.

Evening: Our granddaughter's birthday is coming up. Kathy and I take a quick trip to the mall, where we try to understand the morass of electronic games for her.

Kathy notes that we could just as well have ordered them on the web and got next-day delivery, besides.

On the way home, we stop at the local gas station to fill up. Next car I get will probably be an electric hybrid. Why go to the local gas station when I could charge the car in my own garage?

You get the picture. Automation is not some vague development to be worried about in the gloomy future. It's rushing at us with the speed of a bullet train: "Recent developments in machine learning will put a substantial share of employment, across a wide range of occupations, at risk in the near future,” the respected Economist magazine recently concluded.

As Bridge recently noted, a pair of Oxford University researchers looked at 702 occupations in a widely cited 2013 study, and concluded that an astonishing 47 percent of American workers were at high risk of having their jobs automated. Particularly vulnerable are workers in transport and logistics, such as taxi and delivery drivers. Also at risk are cashiers, counter check-out staff and rental clerks.

MORE COVERAGE: The disappearing cashier. And why Michigan should worry

My guess is the march of automation is remorseless and unstoppable. And the consequences for workers seem equally dire, with enormous increases in unemployment nearly inevitable.

What's the solution?

Instead of fighting the inevitable, it's to give the labor force the skills they need to compete by adding capabilities and competency training to high school, community college, and even university curricula.

Just as important, we have to finding a way to impart those skills to the essentially unskilled high school graduates we’ve been producing, many of whom aren't even in the labor force at all, since they've stopped looking for any kind of job.

How are we going to do this? Who is going to pay for it? And how fast do we have to move to avoid an economic catastrophe?

This much is certain: These essential questions call for an unvarnished discussion to start right now, and this issue should dominate the statewide elections next year

We need to face what we’re up against ‒ and use that knowledge to set the agenda for our economy and our education system. But when I look at what’s preoccupying our representatives in Washington and Lansing these days, it doesn't give me much hope.

I hope something happens to make me pleasantly surprised.

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