Advances in data mining, machine vision, artificial intelligence and other technologies could, put 47% of American jobs at high risk of being automated in the years ahead. Loan officers, tax preparers, cashiers, locomotive engineers, paralegals, roofers, taxi drivers and even animal breeders are all in danger of going the way of the switchboard operator.
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Since the end of the Great Recession, job creation has not kept up with population growth. Corporate profits have doubled since 2000, yet median household income dropped from $55,986 to $51,017. Somehow businesses are making more profit with fewer workers.
Researchers at MIT, call this divergence the “great decoupling.” In their view, it is a historic shift.
The conventional economic wisdom has long been that as long as productivity is increasing, all is well. Technological innovations foster higher productivity, which leads to higher incomes and greater well-being for all. And for most of the 20th century productivity and incomes did rise in parallel. But in recent decades the two began to diverge. Productivity kept increasing while incomes—which is to say, the welfare of individual workers stagnated or dropped.
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Artificial intelligence will have a major impact on employment
“Strong AI,” which has a goal of automating all the tasks, cognitive as well as physical, that humans can perform. Strong AI differs from “Weak AI,” having a goal of simply providing help to humans.
Indeed AI and automation are already having profound effects on employment, as former assembly line workers, postal employees, and bank tellers will confirm. Also, soon to be affected are even some mid-level professionals such as attorneys, radiologists, stockbrokers, and newspaper writers. I think that the result of all of this automation will be continuing structural unemployment, especially among unskilled and not-sufficiently educated people.
Researchers argue that technological advances are destroying jobs, particularly low-skill jobs, faster than they’re creating them. They cite research showing that so-called routine jobs (bank teller, machine operator, dressmaker) began to fade in the 1980s, when computers first made their presence known, but that the rate has accelerated: between 2001 and 2011, 11% of routine jobs disappeared and this pace will continue.
Opinions about the societal impact of this rapidly accelerating technological revolution span the spectrum from anticipated utopias to the fear of existential threats to humanity. The question is, how will all these abundant goods and services be distributed? Just to those few who are sufficiently well off and who still earn enough from their non-automated jobs to pay for them? What social problems will that cause? We will need significant changes in our economic system to ensure that distribution is fair and socially responsible (whatever all that turns out to mean). Several suggestions come to mind, such as a negative income tax, more entitlements, shorter workweeks, and stock ownership by all citizens, so that they will own the machines producing the wealth and thus collect the dividends.
AI is a disruptive technology, and like all disruptions, it will be both a boon and a bane. Many of its consequences will ultimately be up to us.