Economics

Will A Robot Take Your Job? These Startups Hope So

A strange dichotomy is at work in the US economy. Consumer confidence is off-the-charts high, spending is ramping up, the job market is tight, and household wealth-to-income ratios have never been higher.

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Yet there's a nagging sense the good times won't last. The savings rate has fallen to levels associated with the start of the last two recessions. Consumers are saying now is a good time to sell a home (and cash in on prices above the last housing bubble) and they're still somewhat worried about future job prospects.

Why the lingering nervousness? Perhaps a persistent dread about the coming robot takeover and the threat of job loss? (I recently wrote about the rapid rise of AI here.)

According to Gallup, 26% of Americans believe technology will eliminate their job within 20 years, while 13% believe it'll happen within five years. The outlook is even worse for millennials: They estimate nearly four in 10 are at high risk of being replaced by AI.

McKinsey estimates about 49% of worker activities could potentially be turned over, to varying extents, to a machine, warning that previous technological leaps like the steam engine and the IT revolution will pale in comparison to what machine learning and robotics will accomplish. PwC calculates that up to 38% of US jobs are at high risk of automation by the early 2030s.

Want to know your specific risk? Check out this website by two Oxford academics aptly named "Will Robots Take My Job?"

The philosophical, social utility and policy implications of all this remain in flux. But what's not up for debate is the increasing private-sector activity in the space, as a growing number of startups race to create the machines and computer intelligence required to replace flesh-and-blood employees. And I'm not just talking about well-known vulnerabilities like taxi drivers, truckers, and manufacturing workers.

Here are just three examples:

iCarbonx wants to replace doctors

Shenzhen-based iCarbonx­—which raised $200 million last year—is developing an AI-based health analysis and prediction platform designed to observe, study and guide users toward a more healthful lifestyle.

In an interview with MIT Technology Review last month, co-founder Jun Wang (above) described a "smart mirror" that would represent the culmination of this idea. It would scan the patient, measure body fat, muscle and more, and then display vital information.

Along with DNA sequence data and integration of additional data collected from wearable devices, the hope is that the technology will enable early detection of ailments like heart disease and cancer and encourage changes to prevent disease in the first place.

iCarbonX raised a $45 million investment led by China Bridge Capital in July 2016, a financing round that followed a $155 million Series A led by Tencent in April and gave the company a reported valuation of about $1 billion.

Avant wants to replace loan officers

Based in Chicago, Avant has created an online lending platform that uses Big Data and machine learning algorithms to streamline the loan decision process helping borrowers consolidate debt through personal loans. The company, led by CEO and co-founder Al Goldstein (pictured), raised $325 million in Series E financing back in September 2015, with General Atlantic leading a round at a $2 billion valuation.

Fintech has been an area of intense activity recently—with upstarts pushing in on Wall Street's turf on everything from payments processing to credit cards and personal finance apps.

Avant isn't alone, with competitors like publicly traded Lending Club (NYSE: LC) and VC-backed Kabbage using a similar strategy: automating the credit creation process.

Avant's other backers include KKR, Tiger Global, DFJ Growth and RRE Ventures.

Drift wants to replace sales associates

VC-backed Drift is developing a chat-based marketing and sales platform that uses bots and AI to obtain real-time customer information and turn it into qualified meetings. Led by founder and CEO David Cancel (pictured), the company raised $32 million in Series B funding in September at a $132 million valuation.

Instead of boring and staid customer intake forms­—"Enter your email for more information" and the like—Drift powers an interactive chat-bot that makes feedback and data collection less obtrusive. The bot then directs potential customers to human sales associates after pre-qualifying the lead.

With Salesforce integration, the ability to automate meeting scheduling and more, the system is designed to replace the need for a junior sales staff.

Drift has raised $47 million in total financing from investors such as General Catalyst, CRV and Sequoia.

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Fears of being made obsolete by a machine are far from new. The term "robot" comes from the Slavic word for work (robota) and was coined in a 1920s play about, you guessed it, androids with the speed and strength of two-and-a-half men replacing factory workers at a fraction of the cost.

And more than 50 years ago, US President Lyndon B. Johnson created the National Commission on Technology, Automation, and Economic Progress to study, among other things, the impact on labor from advances in machine learning.

He declared the automation didn't have to destroy jobs but "can be the ally of our prosperity if we just look ahead."

Related read: Rise of AI excites VC investors, challenges society

Article by Anthony Mirhaydari, PitchBook