Editor's letter: When a bot takes your job

Now that computers can write news stories, drive cars, and play chess, we’re all in trouble.

A bot did not write this editor’s letter, but it probably could have. And will someday. When a modest earthquake rattled Los Angeles this week, an automated program created by a journalist took the seismic data from the U.S. Geological Survey, and generated a story that the Los Angeles Times posted on its website three minutes after the quake hit. The bare-bones report—“A shallow magnitude 4.7 earthquake was reported Monday morning…”—sufficed until human reporters could flesh out the story. As this type of algorithm becomes more sophisticated, most routine news stories could be written by bots, freeing people in my trade to devote ourselves to deeper, more meaningful work…or to join that long unemployment line. Don’t laugh. You could be next.

In a recent paper, “The Future of Employment,” Carl Frey and Michael Osborne of Oxford University estimate that 47 percent of U.S. jobs could be automated in the next 20 years. Waiters, kitchen staff, cashiers, loan officers, accountants, taxi and truck drivers, pilots, retail salespeople, real estate agents, and even soldiers might all be replaced by intelligent robots or sophisticated software. If you don’t think a bot could do your job, consider this: IBM’s Watson kicked Ken Jennings’s butt on Jeopardy!, and supercomputers now routinely whip the best grandmasters at chess. Google and Audi are testing prototypes of self-driving cars—which engineers said were impossible just a decade ago. Surely, a computer smart enough to navigate a car on a Los Angeles freeway or checkmate a grandmaster could fill this space every week. Fortunately, my boss would never replace me with a bot just to save the company money. Right, boss? Right?

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