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The Briefing: The economic time bomb called automation

WASHINGTON – As America embarks on a trade war to try to reclaim manufacturing jobs it lost years or decades ago, a report came out this week that paints a frightening future where automation may well destroy more jobs than trade ever did.

The report from New York's Center for an Urban Future says that more than 1.2 million jobs in New York State – including 105,220 jobs in the eight counties of Western New York – could go the way of the buggy whip in the coming decades.

That's 15.8 percent of the region's jobs, potentially disappearing at a pace that could put an end to Buffalo's modest comeback.

"Machine learning, robotics, and artificial intelligence are poised to bring about massive changes to a much larger swath of the economy in the years ahead, sweeping not just through factory floors but office towers, hospital wards, and main streets," the report said. "Automation has the potential to displace workers in a growing range of occupations, as varied as bookkeepers and x-ray technicians, paralegals and food prep workers. The result is that both traditional and emerging industries will be transformed, with significant effects on New York’s workforce."

The New York think tank's report is the first that looks in depth at how artificial intelligence will likely rock the New York economy in the coming years. In a way, the state is lucky: It's home to plenty of health care, teaching, accounting and hand-labor jobs that will be resistant to automation. Still, the report said 41.2 percent of job tasks in the state could be done by machines, compared to a whopping 51 percent nationwide.

The bad news for Buffalo is that it has more jobs that can be done by machines, such as those in food preparation, than other parts of the state. As a result, 44.5 percent of the job tasks in Western New York could someday be done by machines instead of people.

"Western New York’s share of automatable work ranks among the highest in the state," the report said. "It has the second-highest share of jobs that are at least 80 percent automatable (after Central New York), the highest share that are at least 50 percent automatable, and the second-highest share that are at least 30 percent automatable (after the North Country region)."

Don't think this is just one set of doomsayers predicting a bleak future. Other recent studies show the same sort of automation-driven job losses on a national scale that the Center for an Urban Future's report shows happening in New York.

For example, a McKinsey and Co. report from last year says more than half of the nation's job tasks could be automated within the coming years. Manufacturing, hospitality, food service and retail jobs seem the most vulnerable, the report said.

Meantime, a Ball State University report notes that the automation wave is already underway. In fact, the report says, 85 percent of recent manufacturing job losses can be attributed to automation rather than foreign trade.

Together, the reports spell out why three Democratic senators, including Sen. Kirsten E. Gillibrand of New York, argue Congress should act now.

The bill they introduced, the TAA for Automation Act, would expand a program that now provides retraining and other aid to those who lose their jobs to foreign trade. Under the senators' revision of that program, workers who lose their jobs to automation would be eligible for the same kind of government help.

“Congress has a responsibility to make sure that if a worker loses their job because of automation, they land on their feet," Gillibrand said. "We can’t leave anyone stranded."

Of course, the robots and the computers won't take over the American economy overnight. The McKinsey report actually predicts a relatively slow transition, where workers will work alongside the machines that will replace them for a time and where many of those human workers will eventually transition into new jobs.

There are upsides to the automation wave, too, the McKinsey report said.

"Automation also contributes to productivity, as it has done historically," the report said. "At a time of lackluster productivity growth, this would give a needed boost to economic growth and prosperity."

But for whom? Most likely, the rise of the robots will likely benefit the same sort of entities that profited from moving jobs overseas: corporations who will see cost cuts.

Gillibrand, meanwhile, worries about everybody else.

"Low and middle income workers are expected to be hit the hardest, so we need to be prepared," she said in advocating for the bill she introduced with Sen. Joe Donnelly of Indiana and Sen. Gary Peters of Michigan. "Our existing safety net just isn't equipped to deal with automation, and workers who lose their jobs to automation deserve all the same opportunities to get back on their feet as workers whose jobs were shipped overseas."

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