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Lynn Hummel: The caboose was only the beginning

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Lynn Hummel: The caboose was only the beginning
Detroit Lakes Minnesota 511 Washington Avenue 56501

The caboose was only the beginning. As a boy, I remember watching the trains, pulled by big, black, noisy, coal-burning steam engines with a dramatic, iconic shape you couldn’t forget, and at the end of every train was a caboose with a friendly guy in a railroad uniform and cap riding in the dome top, waving back at kids as the train rolled down the tracks.


The caboose provided the train crew with a shelter and minimal living quarters for longer trips. The conductor had a desk there for record keeping and the switching crew would operate from the back of the train to attend to their braking and safety duties. There was even a cast iron stove for heat and cooking. The walls were sometimes decorated with pictures and posters. Until the 1980s, federal laws required all freight trains to have a caboose and a full crew for safety.

But technology advanced, as it always does, and flashing rear end devises (FREDs) and end-of-train devises (EOTs) were developed to monitor the train’s air brake pressure, train movement, slack in couplings and to provide blinking red lights to show following trains that a train is ahead.

So today there are almost no cabooses, bunk beds, cots, cook stoves, pictures on the wall, brakemen or crew on board, and no friendly waves to kids watching the train go by. Instead, the last car of the train has a yellow box on the end, a computer that has eliminated a job or two or three or four and has sent train crews scurrying as their jobs roll down the tracks.

About the time the caboose disappeared, computers were forcing other workers to find other work. The changes have been rapid, dramatic and frustrating. How often have you said, “I’d like to talk to a human being — a real person?” Get used to it. It’s only going to get worse, or better, depending on your view.

Now computers are creating robots which are nothing but computers with metal arms and legs. There’s a brain too — a computer — but that may be somewhere else. Computers and robots still don’t clean toilets and scrub floors, but it won’t be long before floors are designed to be scrubbed by robots.

How dramatic is this change? From 2000 to 2010, technology has replaced 64 percent of telephone operators, 63 percent of word processors and typists, 46 percent of travel agents and 26 percent of bookkeepers. All this according to Department of Labor statistics. These are not menial jobs.

Looking ahead, the Business Insider magazine has listed nine jobs that will practically become obsolete as technology advances: 1. Pharmacists. Computers and robots can take prescriptions by e-mail and select, package and dispense them. 2. Lawyers and Paralegals. Software research and document preparation will enable one lawyer to do the work of many. 3. Drivers. Automated cars can already drive 1,000 miles without human control and 140,000 miles with minimal human direction. 4. Astronauts. All space travel will be by robots. 5. Store clerks. You’ve seen ATM machines placed by banks and you’re seeing self-service checkouts. 6. Soldiers. We will conduct warfare by drones and automated tanks. 7. Babysitters. Big retailers already have robots in the store to keep track of your kids while you shop. Some tell jokes and give quizzes and monitor by chips and radio. But none can change a diaper and none ever will. 8. Rescuers. We now have snakelike robots to burrow into tight spaces like collapsed buildings, to survey by camera and pull out victims. 9. Sportswriters and reporters. We’re seeing these already. Scorekeepers e-mail data to a computer that spits out the story of the game in minutes.

This has been coming for a long time. There was a day when 38 percent of Americans lived and worked on farms. Today, with machines milking cows and computers programming tractors, the farm population has been reduced to 1-2 percent.

We should have been alarmed when a computer named Watson beat MIT and Harvard teams playing Jeopardy.

Where will the pharmacists, lawyers, clerks, tax preparers, meter readers, travel agents, telephone operators an all the rest of the displaced workers go to find jobs? Technology creates jobs too, but not nearly as fast as it replaces them. Workers will either have to train for higher level jobs or settle for a lower level. Scary dilemma.

How far will it go? Would you be willing to fly on a totally automated plane? There is a story about the first fully automated flight of the future. “Welcome aboard folks. You are passengers in the first fully automated flight in history. This is a recorded message. There are no pilots, co-pilots, flight attendants or airline personnel of any sort on this flight. Computers and robots will fly this plane from takeoff to safe landing and attend to your every need even better than before. So sit back, relax and prepare for takeoff — nothing can possibly go wrong... go wrong... go wrong... go wrong... go wrong...”

The caboose was only the beginning.