The 4 Horsemen of the High-Tech Apocalypse


I recently penned an article about how during the past two decades, tech innovations have gutted our job market, upending industries from media to retailing to manufacturing. The Atlantic also had a story out last week about “The Post-Employee Economy” that discusses how high-tech means allow for big savings for consumers and big gains for productivity … but very little hope for labor and the prospect of jobs.

But that stuff is mild compared to a CNN post I just stumbled across from May that kicks around the idea that losing our jobs to computers actually might be a good thing. Someone actually muses that, “In my opinion, many of the jobs that are being fought over by unions today are jobs that will be outlawed within several generations as inhumane.”

Really? Tell that to an out-of-work roofer just hoping for a paycheck to get by in 2012.

Of course, you can’t put the toothpaste back in the tube. Technology is on the march, and its consequences are unavoidable. So I thought I’d take the natural next step here as an investor. After all, if we’re going to lose our jobs to computers, we might as well invest in the companies that make the job killers … right?

Here are my picks for the four horsemen of the high-tech apocalypse: Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL), IBM (NYSE:IBM), (NASDAQ:AMZN) and Siemens (NYSE:SI).

Apple — Media and Communication

Apple blew up the music industry with its iPod. It has redefined mobile communications with its iPhone and iPad. And its aggressive tactics that shave 30% off app profits (after developers jump through Apple’s approval hoops) and squeeze publishers, bands and other content creators ensure Apple keeps a stranglehold on nearly every media channel.

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Of course, alternative methods of communication and entertainment still exist … for now. But the problem is that the only way companies can compete with Apple is to abandon profitability altogether. As Horace Dediu of Asymco points out, Apple makes just under 9% of all cell phones worldwide, but iPhones pull in 75% of profit made by all makers. Check out what that looks like:

If you believe in a computer takeover, then you should believe that we’ll writing emails about it, reading about it, listening to podcasts about it and watching video about it on Apple products.

Well … if the machines don’t censor us first, of course.

IBM — Health Care, Education and Finance

IBM takes its roots in some of the earliest automation, including father companies that made timecard-punching machines in the 1880s and automatic data tabulation during World War II. The march toward automation has continued unabated — but IBM devices do far more than just simple math these days.

Watson, Big Blue’s flagship artificial intelligence program, isn’t just a trivia whiz that can win at Jeopardy! Watson is looking to take the guesswork out of health care by diagnosing ailments, and Sloan-Kettering just hired the computer to help it fight cancer. Watson also is in demand on the education front, since its analytics capabilities can help create customized learning plans for students based on performance data (read “grades”). And then, of course, there’s big potential for Watson in the data-driven financial sector to sort out the economic and jobs data on a macro level and assess individual credit risks on a consumer loan level.

Computers already have replaced many manufacturing jobs that require simple manual labor and killed office jobs that require menial data entry. It’d seem like evaluating a cancer patient, middle-schooler or prospective homeowner demands a human touch … but with the wealth of data and the sophistication of computers like Watson, these industries could be severely disrupted in the years ahead. — Retail

You might think is the best thing since sliced bread. You get goods for the cheapest price ever, you get stuff shipped directly to your door for free and you can shop without putting pants on.

Well, there is a dark side to this retail business. In April, Mother Jones published a rather stark exploration into the warehousing hell of online retailers like Amazon. Unlike a typical store that needs a cashier and a stockboy and a helpful sales associate, all Amazon needs is grunts to put packages on conveyor belts.

Oh, except it just bought robots company Kiva for $775 million. I guess Amazon plans on cutting out the human help altogether.

It’s great for consumers that they can get everything for the lowest possible price. But that low price is possible in part because there are precious few humans involved in the transaction. You enter your credit card number at Amazon’s checkout, a robot pulls stock from the shelves and the goods are loaded up for delivery.

Once delivery services are automated, then retail could theoretically be fully the territory of machines.

Siemens — Manufacturing

I would be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge the automation in manufacturing processes of all shapes and sizes. And according to automation trade publication Control Global, Siemens has been the biggest player in this space for several years running — to the tune of almost $13 billion in annual sales worldwide.

Siemens serves steelmakers, foundries, automakers and even packaged foods companies like PepsiCo (NYSE:PEP). Siemens offers software to monitor the process and automates quality assurance to ensure the finished product is up to snuff.

Just push a button and presto: Ore is turned into rolls of steel, drive shafts for sedans are assembled and thousands of soda bottles roll off the line.

Of course, I suppose it’s important to keep some humans working because Pepsi probably isn’t very appealing to robots. Once the machines start drinking pop, we’re going to be in it deep.

Jeff Reeves is the editor of and the author of “The Frugal Investor’s Guide to Finding Great Stocks.” Write him at or follow him on Twitter via @JeffReevesIP. As of this writing, he owned a long position in AAPL for the recently minted dividends … not a looming robot apocalypse.

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