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Automation fears aren't stupid

Robots in the work space
Andrew Bret Wallis | Getty Images

An article in today's New York Times discusses the growing concern that automation will kill jobs. And to paraphrase the headline of that article, I don't think worrying about automation killing jobs it is a stupid idea either.

Consider the not-too-distant future: you'll order something from Amazon, a robot will select the item from a giant, nearly-human free warehouse, (this part is already happening), silently load your order into a driverless truck and take it to a smaller, local facility. There, another robot unloads the semi and moves your order into a driverless van, which alerts you by text to come out and get it .One order, multiple steps, nearly no humans.

This will happen, and probably sooner than we think.

As viewers know, I have expressed real concern that ever-increasing automation is going to permanently replace many jobs. Unlike the past, it is not just manufacturing jobs at risk. Retail services, transportation and even Wall Street are likely next on the robot hit list. Fire three or four traders and replace them with a math quant from M.I.T. who can build software to do their jobs for them. There are working models of restaurants and retail shops without humans. Software and robots don't take vacations, require health care, or demand $15/hour minimum wage.

I am not a doomsday theorist or a secret attendee to Singularity University. It is clear that some jobs will evolve into new ones we can't even imagine yet. That will happen, as it has in the past. Robots won't dominate everything. History tells us humans are very good at finding ways to keep themselves needed.

But consider if the OECD report cited in the Times' article is correct; that "only" 9% of US jobs are at risk. That doesn't sound like too much until you consider that 9% of our 151 million-strong workforce is a stunning 13 million jobs. Let's say the report overstates the problem by half. That's still another 6 to 7 million unemployed. Add that to the current jobless rolls and suddenly we are looking at 12 or 13 million without work. Those are financial crisis type levels, folks.

I hope I am wrong. But if not, be prepared for the basic income/disability/safety net discussion and debate to dominate our discourse for years to come.

Commentary by Brian Sullivan, co-host of CNBC's "Power Lunch." Follow him on Twitter @SullyCNBC.