October 31, 2011, 3:26 PM — 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 Macine. "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 health-care providers, should also be safe.