Though many are still working out the kinks, software is making machines and devices smarter every year. They can learn your habits, recognize your voice, do the things that travel agents, secretaries and interpreters have traditionally done.
Microsoft has unveiled a system that can translate what you say into Mandarin and play it back — in your voice. The Google Now personal assistant can tell you if there’s a traffic jam on your regular route home and suggest an alternative. Talk to Apple’s Siri and she can reschedule an appointment. IBM’s Watson supercomputer can field an awkwardly worded question, figure out what you’re trying to ask, retrieve the answer and spit it out fast enough to beat human champions on the TV quiz show “Jeopardy!” Computers with that much brainpower increasingly will invade traditional office work.
Besides becoming more powerful and creative, machines and their software are becoming easier to use. That has made consumers increasingly comfortable relying on them to transact business. As well as eliminated jobs of bank tellers, ticket agents and checkout cashiers.
People who used to say “Let me talk to a person. I don’t want to deal with this machine” are now using check-in kiosks at airports and self-checkout lanes at supermarkets and drugstores, says Jeff Connally, CEO of CMIT Solutions, a technology consultancy.
The most important change in technology, he says, is “the profound simplification of the user interface.”
Four years ago, the Darien, Conn., public library bought self-service check-out machines from 3M Co. Now, with customers scanning books themselves, the library is processing more books than ever while shaving 15 percent from staff hours by using fewer part-time workers.
So machines are getting smarter and people are more comfortable using them. Those factors, combined with the financial pressures of the Great Recession, have led companies and government agencies to cut jobs the past five years, yet continue to operate just as well.
How is that happening?
—Reduced aid from Indiana’s state government and other budget problems forced the Gary, Ind., public school system last year to cut its annual transportation budget in half, to $5 million. The school district responded by using sophisticated software to draw up new, more efficient bus routes. And it cut 80 of 160 drivers.
When the Great Recession struck, the Seattle police department didn’t have money to replace retiring officers. So it turned to technology — a new software system that lets police officers file crime-scene reports from laptops in their patrol cars.
The software was nothing fancy, just a collection of forms and pull-down menus, but the impact was huge. The shift from paper eliminated the need for two dozen transcribers and filing staff at police headquarters, and freed desk-bound officers to return to the streets.
“A sergeant used to read them, sign them, an officer would photocopy them and another drive them to headquarters,” says Dick Reed, an assistant chief overseeing technology. “Think of the time, think of the salary. You’re paying an officer to make photocopies.”
Thanks to the software, the department has been able to maintain the number of cops on the street at 600.
The software, from Versaterm, a Canadian company, is being used by police in dozens of cities, including Denver, Portland, Ore., and Austin, Texas.
—In South Korea, Standard Chartered is expanding “smart banking” branches that employ a staff of three, compared with an average of about eight in traditional branches. The bank has closed a dozen full-service branches, replacing them with the smart branches, and expects to have 30 more by the end of this year. Customers do most of their banking on computer screens, and can connect with Standard Chartered specialists elsewhere by video-conference if they need help.
Comerica, a bank based in Dallas, is using new video-conferencing equipment that lets cash-management experts make pitches to potential corporate clients from their desks. Those experts, based in Livonia, Mich., used to board planes and visit prospects in person. Now, they get Comerica colleagues in various cities to pay visits to local companies and conference them in.
“The technology for delivering (high quality) video over a public Internet connection was unavailable 12 or 18 months ago,” says Paul Obermeyer, Comerica’s chief information officer. “Now, we’re able to generate more revenue with the same employee base.”
The networking equipment also allows video to be delivered to smart phones, so the experts can make pitches on the run, too.
—The British-Australian mining giant Rio Tinto announced plans last year to invest $518 million in the world’s first long-haul, heavy-duty driverless train system at its Pilbara iron ore mines in Western Australia. The automated trains are expected to start running next year. The trains are part of what Rio Tinto calls its “Mine of the Future” program, which includes 150 driverless trucks and automated drills.
Like many technologically savvy startups, Dirk Vander Kooij’s furniture-making company in the Netherlands needs only a skeleton crew — four people. The hard work at the Eindhoven-based company is carried out by an old industrial robot that Vander Kooij fashioned into a 3D printer. Using plastic recycled from old refrigerators, the machine “prints” furniture — ranging in price from a $300 chair to a $3,000 lamp — the way an ordinary printer uses ink to print documents. Many analysts expect 3D printing to revolutionize manufacturing, allowing small firms like Vander Kooij’s to make niche products without hiring many people.
—Google’s driverless car and the Pentagon’s drone aircraft are raising the specter of highways and skies filled with cars and planes that can get around by themselves.
“A pilotless airliner is going to come; it’s just a question of when,” James Albaugh, retired CEO of Boeing Commercial Airlines, said in 2011, according to IEEE Spectrum magazine. “You’ll see it in freighters first, over water probably, landing very close to the shore.”
Unmanned trains already have arrived. The United Arab Emirates introduced the world’s longest automated rail system — 32 miles — in Dubai in 2009.
And the trains on several Japanese rail lines run by themselves. Tokyo’s Yurikamome Line, which skirts Tokyo Bay, is completely automated. The line — named for the black-headed sea gull that is Tokyo’s official bird — employs only about 60 employees at its 16 stations. “Certainly, using the automated systems does reduce the number of staff we need,” says Katsuya Hagane, the manager in charge of operations at New Transit Yurikamome.
Driverless cars will have a revolutionary impact on traffic one day — and the job market. In the United States alone, 3.1 million people drive trucks for a living, 573,000 drive buses, 342,000 drive taxis or limousines. All those jobs will be threatened by automated vehicles.
—Phone companies and gas and electric utilities are using technology to reduce their payrolls. Since 2007, for instance, telecommunications giant Verizon has increased its annual revenue 19 percent — while employing 17 percent fewer workers. The smaller work force partly reflects the shift toward cellphones and away from landlines, which require considerably more maintenance. But even the landlines need less human attention because Verizon is rapidly replacing old-fashioned copper lines with lower-maintenance, fiber-optic cables.
Verizon also makes it easier for customers to deal with problems themselves without calling a repairman. From their homes, consumers can open Verizon’s In-home Agent software on their computers. The system can determine why a cable TV box isn’t working or why the Internet connection is down — and fix the problem in minutes. The program has been downloaded more than 2 million times, Verizon says.
And then there are the meter readers like PG&E’s Liscano. Their future looks grim.
Southern California Edison finished its digital meter installation program late last year. All but 20,000 of its 5.3 million customers have their power usage beamed directly to the utility.
Nearly all of the 972 meter readers in Southern California Edison’s territory accepted retirement packages or were transferred within the company, says Pat Lavin of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers. But 92 workers are being laid off this month.
“Trying to keep it from happening would have been like the Teamsters in the early 1900s trying to stop the combustion engine,” Lavin says. “You can’t stand in the way of technology.”
Bernard Condon and Jonathan Fahey reported from New York. AP Business Writers Christopher S. Rugaber in Washington, Youkyung Lee in Seoul, Toby Sterling in Amsterdam and Elaine Kurtenbach in Tokyo contributed to this report. You can reach the writers on Twitter at www.twitter.com/BernardFCondon and www.twitter.com/PaulWisemanAP.