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Practically Human: Can Smart Machines Do Your Job?

â¿¿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 â¿¿ 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 â¿¿ 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."

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NEXT: Will smart machines create a world without work?

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An AP interactive that accompanies the Great Reset series explores job growth in recent economic recoveries and includes an in-depth video analysis: â¿¿http://bigstory.ap.org/interactive/interactive-great-reset/

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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. Join in a Twitter chat about this story on Thursday, Jan. 24, at noon ET using the hashtag (hash)TheGreatReset.

Copyright 2011 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.
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