The White House today release a report on the future of artificial intelligence. The document covered a number of concerns. Perhaps the shortest major section was “AI, Automation, and the Economy.”
The brevity owed to how little is known about the coming impact of AI on industry, the economy, and jobs. But there are indicators that potential productivity benefits may not help many in low- and medium-skilled jobs.
Like past waves of innovation, AI will create both benefits and costs. The primary benefit of previous waves of automation has been productivity growth; today’s wave of automation is no different. For example, a 2015 study of robots in 17 countries found that they added an estimated 0.4 percentage point on average to those countries’ annual GDP growth between 1993 and 2007, accounting for just over one-tenth of those countries’ overall GDP growth during that time.
One important concern arising from prior waves of automation, however, is the potential impact on certain types of jobs and sectors, and the resulting impacts on income inequality. Because AI has the potential to eliminate or drive down wages of some jobs, especially low- and medium-skill jobs, policy interventions will likely be needed to ensure that AI’s economic benefits are broadly shared and that inequality is diminished and not worsened as a consequence.
The problem is that many low- and medium-skill jobs are those that follow rigid patterns. Office work, factory work, service occupations, and many other types of jobs are repetitive. The more predictable the activities and methods, the more easily jobs are automated. AI increased the stakes because computer systems learn from data about historic and current activity to find the repetitive patterns. People become the trainers for the machines.
This photo taken on October 3, 2016 shows a staffer from the Sharp booth introducing a prototype robot called ‘Home Assistant’, which has the ability to turn on and off household appliances as it speaks with users, during a press preview at the Combined Exhibition of Advanced Technologies (CEATEC) Japan in Chiba, in suburban Tokyo.Asia’s largest tech fair is offering a counterpoint to major technology firms pushing the boundaries of artificial intelligence (AI). / AFP / TORU YAMANAKA (Photo credit should read TORU YAMANAKA/AFP/Getty Images)
There are types of work that would be difficult to automate, such as carpentry and plumbing in existing homes. The problem for machines is that robots don’t have the ranges of motion and ability to work with unpredictable layouts and previous work. But for too many workers, what they do is more easily automated than most realize.