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The disruption of workers by robots is about to take a giant leap forward

David Pogue
Tech Critic

Most people at Chicago’s Automate conference are looking over the latest robots, which are faster, safer, and smarter than ever before. They’re here to see how they might incorporate automation into their places of work.

I, on the other hand, am here as the final stop on a six-week adventure: Researching the effect that robots will have on the American labor force. My report will take the form of a “CBS Sunday Morning” story that’s tentatively slated to be broadcast this Sunday, April 9.

One thing is clear: Robots are definitely going to take over millions of our jobs. About 5 million retail jobs, 3 million truck-driving jobs, and 500,000 taxi and ride-sharing jobs in the US could, in time, take their places alongside the millions of factory jobs that robots have already displaced.

In preparing this story, I rode in a robotic truck that drove itself down a Florida highway, and I ate pizza that had been made by a line of robots in a Silicon Valley pizzeria.

Visitors stand behind a robot at the booth of THK at the Aircraft Interiors Expo 2017 in Hamburg, Germany April 4, 2017. REUTERS/Fabian Bimmer

And I interviewed experts on both coasts.

This much, they agree on: The disruption of human workers by robots and AI is about to take a gigantic leap forward. (According to a PwC report last month, 38% of US jobs could be at high risk of automation by the 2030s.)

What they don’t agree on at all is what this means. Some, like “Rise of the Robots” author Martin Ford, predict massive unemployment—to the point where we need to start considering what people will live on, and how they’ll find meaning in life.

Others, like MIT economist David Autor, point out that we’ve seen many technological revolutions before: in farming, in cars, in electricity, in computing. Yes, there’s always massive displacement of workers—not many people make buggy whips or repair typewriters anymore—but that doesn’t mean they wind up unemployed. They just shift to something else, to new industries that their predecessors couldn’t have imagined.

We’re in the same boat, he says. No, our children won’t be taxi drivers, truck drivers, factory workers, or checkout cashiers. Truth is, we don’t know what they’ll be doing—because the future isn’t here yet. But it’ll be something.

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David Pogue, tech columnist for Yahoo Finance, welcomes non-toxic comments in the Comments below. On the web, he’s davidpogue.com. On Twitter, he’s @pogue. On email, he’s poguester@yahoo.com. You can read all his articles here, or you can sign up to get his columns by email