digital dangers

Study finds that almost half of Houston's workforce tasks could be done by robots

According to a report, robotics could substitute for 46.3 percent of tasks usually completed by workers in Houston. Photo by vm/Getty Images

While fears of robots taking the jobs of American workers has been perforating throughout the United States, a news study found just how much of the workforce's responsibilities could be automized.

Almost half of Houston's workplace tasks are susceptible to automation, according to a new report from the Brookings Institution's Metropolitan Policy Program. Of 100 metros analyzed, Houston ranks 31st among the country's 100 biggest metros, with 46.3 percent of work tasks susceptible to automation.

Authors of the study are quick to point out that this doesn't mean human workers will be entirely replaced by robots. Rather, they say, it means at least some of the humans' tasks could be automated.

"While this report concludes that the future may not be as dystopian as the most dire voices claim, plenty of people and places will be affected by automation, and much will need to be done to mitigate the coming disruptions," the authors write.

Across the country, jobs that could encounter the most interference from automation include food preparation worker, payroll clerk, and commuter network support specialist, according to the report.

"Machines substitute for tasks, not jobs. A job is a collection of tasks," the report says. "Some of those tasks are best done by humans, others by machines. Even under the most aggressive scenarios of technological advancement, it is unlikely that machines will be able to substitute for all tasks in any one occupation."

Elsewhere in Texas:

  • Dallas ranks 29th among the country's 100 biggest metros, with 46.5 percent of work tasks susceptible to automation.
  • San Antonio ranks 41st among the country's 100 biggest metros, with 46 percent of work tasks susceptible to automation.
  • Austin ranks 78th among the country's 100 biggest metros, with 44.3 percent of work tasks susceptible to automation.

According to CityLab, the Brookings report shows places where energy jobs are prevalent, such as Houston, will get through the automation period "relatively unscathed," as will college towns and state capitals like Austin. Authors of the report maintain that automation complements human labor.

"Generally, whatever workplace activity isn't taken over by automation is complemented by it — making each remaining human task more valuable. This makes labor more valuable, and the increased productivity generally … translates into higher wages," the report says.

The report indicates that among the 100 largest U.S. metros, Toledo, Ohio, confronts the most potential automation in the workplace (49 percent share of job tasks), while Washington, D.C., faces the least potential automation (39.8 percent share of job tasks).

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This story originally ran on CultureMap.

Houston-based Moleculin has three different oncology technologies currently in trials. Getty Images

Immunotherapy and personalized medicine get all the headlines lately, but in the fight against cancer, a natural compound created by bees could beat them in winning one battle.

In 2007, chairman and CEO Walter Klemp founded Moleculin Biotech Inc. as a private company. The former CPA had found success in life sciences with a company that sold devices for the treatment of acne. That introduction into the field of medical technology pushed him toward more profound issues than spotty skin.

"Coincidentally, the inventor of that technology had a brother who was a neuro-oncologist at MD Anderson," Klemp recalls.

The since-deceased Dr. Charles Conrad slowly lured Klemp into what he calls the "cancer ecosphere" of MD Anderson. In 2016, the company went public. And it looks like sooner rather than later, it could make major inroads against some of the toughest cancers to beat.

Klemp observed that while Houston has the world's largest medical center, "the tragic irony" is that other cities have far more biotech money ready to be invested.

"The Third Coast is really starved for capital," he says. "What drew me into this was I was one of the few entrepreneurs that lived here that knew the ropes in terms of tapping into East and West Coast capital structures and could make that connection for them."

The company has three core technologies currently being tested with some success, but the most promising is called WP1066, named for researcher Waldemar Priebe, "a rock star" in his native Poland, according to Klemp, who works at MD Anderson. Though Priebe came to the U.S. in the 1980s, he is still an adjunct professor at the University of Warsaw and conducts some of his trials in Poland because it's easier to get grant money there.

WP1066 uses propolis, a compound of beeswax, sap and saliva that bees produce to seal small areas of their hives, as a base. The molecular compound that Priebe discovered affects STAT3 (signal transducer and activator of transcription), a transcription factor that encourages tumor development. In short, the active compound in WP1066 both downregulates the STAT3, a long-time Holy Grail in the cancer research world, and directly attacking the tumor, but also quieting T Cells, which allows the body's own immune system to fight the cancer itself. Essentially, it works both as chemotherapy and immunotherapy.

WP1066 is demonstrating drug-like properties in trials at MD Anderson on glioblastoma, the aggressive brain cancer that recently took the life of the hospital's former president, John Mendelsohn, as well as John McCain and Beau Biden. It is also being tested against pancreatic cancer, one of the most virulent killers cancer doctors combat.

Priebe also created Annamycin, named for his oldest daughter, a first-line chemotherapy drug that fights Acute Myeloid Leukemia without the cardiotoxicity that can damage patients' hearts even as they beat their cancer.

WP1122 uses yet another mechanism to fight cancer.

"Most people don't know that morphine is essentially a modified version of heroin," Klemp explains.

The difference between the poppy-based drugs? Heroin can cross the blood-brain barrier. It's described as the dicetyl ester of morphine. WP1122 is the dicetyl ester of 2DG (2-Deoxyglucose), a glycolysis inhibitor, which works by overfilling tumor cells with fake glucose so that they can't consume the real glucose that makes them grow.

"The theory is, we could feed you so full of junk food that eventually you'd starve to death," Klemp elucidates. It can cross the blood-brain barrier and is metabolized slowly, meaning that it can be made into a drug in a way that 2DG cannot.

What's impressive about Moleculin is its diversity of drugs. Most companies have one drug that gets all or most of the attention. Moleculin has strong hopes for all three currently in trials.

"It's essentially multiple shots on the goal," says executive vice president and CFO Jonathan Foster.

Moleculin has 13 total employees, five of whom are based in Houston. An office in the Memorial Park area serves as a landing pad for employees and collaborators from around the world to get their work done when in Space City. The virtual office set-up works for the company because experts can stay in their home cities to get their work done. And that work is on its way to saving scores of lives.