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Computer can’t take your job? Just wait

– Who needs an army of lawyers when you have a computer?

When Minneapolis attorney William Greene faced the task of combing through 1.3 million electronic documents in a recent case, he turned to a so-called smart computer program. Three associates selected relevant documents from a smaller sample, “teaching” their reasoning to the computer. The software’s algorithms then sorted the remaining material by importance.

“We were able to get the information we needed after reviewing only 2.3 percent of the documents,” said Greene, a Minneapolis partner at law firm Stinson Leonard Street.

Artificial intelligence has arrived in the American workplace, spawning tools that replicate human judgments that were too complicated and subtle to distill into instructions for a computer.

Algorithms that “learn” from past examples relieve engineers of the need to write out every command.

The advances, coupled with mobile robots wired with this intelligence, make it likely that occupations employing almost half of today’s U.S. workers – as varied as loan officers, cab drivers and real estate agents – will become automatable in the next decade or two, according to a study done at the University of Oxford in Britain.

“These transitions have happened before,” said Carl Benedikt Frey, co-author of the study and a research fellow at the Oxford Martin Programme on the Impacts of Future Technology. “What’s different this time is that technological change is happening even faster, and it may affect a greater variety of jobs.”

It’s a transition on the heels of an information-technology revolution that’s already left a profound imprint on employment across the globe. For both physical and mental labor, computers and robots replaced tasks that could be specified in step-by-step instructions – jobs that involved routine responsibilities that were fully understood.

That eliminated work for typists, travel agents and a whole array of middle-class earners over a single generation.

Yet even increasingly powerful computers faced a mammoth obstacle: They could execute only what they’re explicitly told. It was a nightmare for engineers trying to anticipate every command necessary to get software to operate vehicles or accurately recognize speech.

That kept many jobs in the exclusive province of human labor – until recently.

Oxford’s Frey is convinced of the broader reach of technology now because of advances in machine learning, a branch of artificial intelligence that has software “learn” how to make decisions by detecting patterns in those that humans have made. The approach has powered improvements in making self-driving cars and voice search a reality in the past few years.

To estimate the impact that will have on 702 U.S. occupations, Frey and colleague Michael Osborne applied some of their own machine learning.

They first looked at detailed descriptions for 70 of those jobs and classified them as either possible or impossible to computerize. Frey and Osborne then fed that data to an algorithm that analyzed what kind of jobs lend themselves to automation and predicted probabilities for the remaining 632 professions.

Occupations that employed about 47 percent of Americans in 2010 scored high enough to rank in the risky category, meaning they could be possible to automate “perhaps over the next decade or two,” their analysis, released in September, showed.

“My initial reaction was, wow, can this really be accurate?” said Frey, who’s a Ph.D. economist. “Some of these occupations that used to be safe havens for human labor are disappearing one by one.”

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