CAMBRIDGE, Mass. -- Computers and robots will replace humans in enough jobs that they will dramatically change the economy, said industry watchers and MIT economists at a robotics symposium Monday. And, they said, the transition has already started.
"What we're finally seeing is that our digital helpers aren't just catching up to us, but, in some cases, are passing us," said Andrew McAfee, an MIT economist and co-author of the book Race Against the Machine. "In some head-to-head contests, machines have raced past us."
Speaking at the symposium at MIT, McAfee noted that IBM's Watson supercomputer recently bested human champions on the Jeopardy game show. A Google self-driving car has been coursing around California, and the military is using robots on the ground and in the air in combat zones.
"We thought human beings held the high ground in a lot of these areas," McAfee said. "We looked around and suddenly saw computers doing things they weren't supposed to be good at it ... We're going to see computers, robots doing a lot of jobs that humans are holding today."
But humans needn't get nervous.
McAfee isn't saying robots are about to become our managers. They're not going to run companies or hold department meetings. However, they will be replacing people in company call centers. They'll also be doing financial and industry analysis and a lot of mid-level kinds of jobs that people are paid to do today.
"There's a shift in how work gets done and how wealth is allocated," said Erik Brynjolfsson, director of the MIT Center for Digital Business. "Not so many people will be needed to work at H&R Block now that there's software to do our taxes."
Some jobs will be fairly safe at least for the foreseeable future, according to David Autor, an MIT economist. Autor said that low-skilled and low-paying jobs, such as dog groomers, restaurant wait staff and barbers, should be safe. Those are jobs that would be tough for computers or robots take on.
High-skilled, high-paying jobs, such as high-technology workers and healthcare providers, should also be safe.
The shift is going to come in the middle of the workforce, Autor said. Mid-level paying jobs requiring mid-levels of education are in danger of being lost to technology.
"Think clerical and administrative support," he added. "Support and file and copy are more and more being done by machinery ... This is not unique to the United States, which makes it important as an [economic and global] phenomenon. In every country, middle jobs are contracting."
However, Autor said it's a fallacy that there's only a certain amount of work to be done and that machines will eliminate all jobs and leave people with nothing to do.
"Technology doesn't eliminate jobs altogether," he said. "And it does raise wealth. But it doesn't always have a positive distribution ... We shouldn't be worried that we're going to run out of jobs, but we may not like all the jobs being created. It's something we should be paying attention to."
McAfee said the change in the workforce is coming quickly.
"When I call my cable company in 10 years, I'll most likely be talking to a robot," he said. "Unless I have a very sharp accent or a very strange problem, I'll have a robot handling my problem. And 10 years from now, I think machines will be mowing golf courses. I think most of those little trucks driving around airports will be autonomous."
However, McAfee doesn't envision a workplace without people.
"That's still too science fiction," he said. "Don't get me wrong. Technology grows the economic pie. Technology is not bad for the economy. It makes us more productive. It lets us grow more. The problem is that there's no guarantee that technology will float all boats equally ... The median worker is being left behind by cutting-edge technology."
And that, the economists, agreed, is a challenge that needs further discussion and planning.
Sharon Gaudin covers the Internet and Web 2.0, emerging technologies, and desktop and laptop chips for Computerworld. Follow Sharon on Twitter at @sgaudin or subscribe to Sharon's RSS feed . Her e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.