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Practically Human: Can Smart Machines Do Your Job?

Like many technologically savvy startups, Dirk Vander Kooij's furniture-making company in the Netherlands needs only a skeleton crew â¿¿ 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 â¿¿ ranging in price from a $300 chair to a $3,000 lamp â¿¿ 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.

â¿¿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 â¿¿ 32 miles â¿¿ 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 â¿¿ named for the black-headed sea gull that is Tokyo's official bird â¿¿ 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 â¿¿ 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.

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