Obsolete! Careers that are being automated into oblivion

You might think you're familiar with the steady march of automation. But the list of jobs that are being disrupted by technological change may surprise you.

When most of us think about workers being replaced by automation, we visualize those in manufacturing jobs. This 1913 Ford assembly line employed hundreds of human beings; today, those lines are becoming increasingly automated. The decline in manufacturing jobs has been one of the major economic trends in the United States over the late 20th and early 21st centuries. But the change hasn't stopped there.

Automation moves up the food chain

The decline has hit white-collar jobs at factories too. The image of a shift supervisor, walking the floor with a clipboard and making sure everything is running smoothly, is now obsolete. The equipment that replaced line workers is networked together and outfitted with operations management software that can automatically send all that information to the central office for data analysis.

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Robot craftsmen

Even the high end of the manufacturing spectrum, where you'd expect skilled craftsmen to continue to work their magic, is vulnerable to automation. Dutch furniture maker Dirk Vander Kooij turns out pricey furniture from his workshop with a skeleton crew, thanks to his cunning use of 3-D printing technology, demonstrated in this video.

Serve yourself

Today, the developed world is becoming much more of a service economy, with low-wage service jobs replacing manufacturing as the typical entry level for the workforce. But now these jobs too are subject to automation in the name of efficiency. For instance, the proliferation of self-checkout machines has made it possible for supermarkets to operate with fewer employees.

Will there be anyone left to pay?

The march of automation over the course of the Great Recession has moved beyond the obvious and is now affecting white-collar middle class workers who never thought they could be replaced. For instance, any business that has employees needs payroll administrators. But thanks to the availability of off-site and automated payroll companies -- the so-called "human cloud" -- they no longer need their own payroll administrators. Proponents extol the time-saving and efficiency virtues of automated payroll systems, but that efficiency means significantly fewer payroll professionals are necessary to support industry -- which means fewer payroll jobs to be had.

Human resources for fewer humans

Human resources departments are similarly becoming leaner, with fewer HR personell serving more employees thanks to HR information being accessible online. Ron van Baden, Dutch labor negotiator, says, "Nowadays, employees are expected to do a lot of what we used to think of as HR from behind their own computer. It used to be that you could walk into the employee affairs office with a question about your pension, or the terms of your contract. That's all gone and automated."

Send yourself on vacation

The travel agent, once a ubiquitous feature of the landscape, is a vanishing breed now that anyone can buy airline tickets and check out hotel reviews online. Between 2000 and 2010, the number of travel agents plunged 46 percent. This doesn't just include people working in storefronts with pictures of vacation spots, but also those who have traditionally arranged business travel: in January of 2013 American Express laid of thousands of people in its travel department.

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The public sector gets efficient

Despite the reputation of the public sector and heavily regulated utilities as a safe haven for (possibly inefficient) jobs, these organizations are also turning to automation for efficiency. The advent of "smart meters" has cut PG&E's meter-reading staff in Fresno, California, from 50 to 6 in just six years. The video at left demonstrates "bookbots" at NC State University, which have made it possible for the library to reduce staff hours.

Policing the bottom line

When the Seattle Police was hit with a budget crunch, the city deployed new software to improve efficiency and keep the same number of cops on the streets. That's good news, but that doesn't mean there weren't layoffs: the software meant that police could do a lot of clerical work from their patrol cars, which in turn meant that many transcribers and other people traditionally employed by police departments were laid off.

The obsolete technologists

Don't think that you're safe from displacement because you have a high-tech title. The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that the number of computer operators will decline 18% between 2008 and 2018, and the number of semiconductor processors will decline by nearly 30% over the same period. The machines that these employees have traditionally overseen are simply getting so smart that they don't need all that human attention anymore.

Robot Hemingways

Even work that has traditionally been thought of as "creative," and thus impossible for computers to replicate, is now subject to automation. The North Carolina company Automated Insights is using artificial intelligence to transform box scores into plain-English prose that's personalized for fantasy baseball and football players. Surely no sportswriter can be comfortable with this thought. Will computers be writing slideshows for tech Websites next?

No robot maids (yet)

The real irony of the current wave of automation is that it targets the middle of the job market, not the low end. High-skill jobs are disappearing much more quickly than jobs with low status and low pay, as robots are often too awkward and clumsy to do manual labor outside of carefully controlled conditions. Andrew McAfee, principal research scientist at MIT's Center for Digital Business, notes that "computers can do calculus better than any human being, [but] restaurant bus boy is a very safe job for a long time to come."