Washington – Art Liscano knows he's an endangered species in the job market: He's a meter reader in Fresno, California for 26 years.
He's driven from house to house, checking how much electricity Pacific Gas & Electric customers have used.
But PG&E doesn't need many people like Liscano making rounds anymore.
Every day, the utility replaces 1 200 old-fashioned meters with digital versions that can collect information without human help, generate more accurate power bills, even send an alert if the power goes out.
"I can see why technology is taking over," Liscano, 66, said who earns $67 000 a year.
"We can see the writing on the wall."
His department employed 50 full-time meter readers just six years ago. Now, it has six.
From giant corporations to university libraries to start-up businesses, employers are using rapidly improving technology to do tasks that humans used to do. That means millions of workers are caught in a competition they can't win against machines that keep getting more powerful, cheaper and easier to use.Findings
To better understand the impact of technology on jobs, The Associated Press analyzed employment data from 20 countries; and interviewed economists, technology experts, robot manufacturers, software developers, CEOs and workers who are competing with smarter machines.
The AP found that almost all the jobs disappearing are in industries that pay middle-class wages, ranging from $38 000 to $68 000. Jobs that form the backbone of the middle class in developed countries in Europe, North America and Asia.
In the US, half of the 7.5 million jobs lost during the Great Recession paid middle-class wages, and the numbers are even more grim in the 17 European countries that use the euro as their currency. A total of 7.6 million midpay jobs disappeared in those countries from January 2008 through last June.
Those jobs are being replaced in many cases by machines and software that can do the same work better and cheaper.
"Everything that humans can do a machine can do," Moshe Vardi, a computer scientist at Rice University in Houston, said.
"Things are happening that look like science fiction."
Google and Toyota are rolling out cars that can drive themselves. The Pentagon deploys robots to find roadside explosives in Afghanistan and wages war from the air with drone aircraft. North Carolina State University this month introduced a high-tech library where robots, "bookBots", retrieve books when students request them, instead of humans. The library's 1.5 million books are no longer displayed on shelves; they're kept in 18 000 metal bins that require one-ninth the space.
The advance of technology is producing wondrous products and services that once were unthinkable. But it's also taking a toll on people because they so easily can be replaced.
In the US, more than 1.1 million secretaries vanished from the job market between 2000 and 2010, their job security shattered by software that lets bosses field calls themselves and arrange their own meetings and trips. Over the same period, the number of telephone operators plunged by 64%, word processors and typists by 63%, travel agents by 46% and bookkeepers by 26%, according to Labor Department statistics.
At the heart of the biggest technological changes today is what computer scientists call "Big Data."
Computers thrive on information, and they're feasting on an unprecedented amount of it, from the internet, from Twitter messages and other social media sources, from the barcodes and sensors being slapped on everything from boxes of Huggies diapers to stamping machines in car plants.
According to a Harvard Business Review article by Andrew McAfee and Erik Brynjolfsson of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, more information now crosses the internet every second than the entire internet stored 20 years ago.
Every hour, they note, Wal-Mart Stores collects 50 million filing cabinets' worth of information from its dealings with customers.
No human could make sense of so much data. But computers can. They can sift through mountains of information and deliver valuable insights to decision-makers in businesses and government agencies. For instance, Wal-Mart's analysis of Twitter traffic helped convince it to increase the amount of "Avengers" merchandise it offered when the superhero movie came out last year and to introduce a private-label corn chip in the American Southwest.The cloud
In the old days, say, five years ago, businesses that had to track lots of information needed to install servers in their offices and hire technical staff to run them. "Cloud computing" has changed everything.
Now, companies can store information on the internet, perhaps through Amazon Web Services or Google App Engine, and grab it when they need it. And they don't need to hire experts to do it.
Cloud computing "is a catch-all term for the ability to rent as much computer power as you need without having to buy it, without having to know a lot about it," McAfee says. "It really has opened up very high-powered computing to the masses."
Small businesses, which have no budget for a big technology department, are especially eager to take advantage of the cheap computer power offered in the cloud.
Hilliard's Beer in Seattle, founded in October 2011, bought software from the German company SAP that allows it to use cloud computing to track sales and inventory and to produce the reports that federal regulators require.
"It automates a lot of the stuff that we do," owner Ryan Hilliard says. "I know what it takes to run a server. I didn't want to hire an IT guy."