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The Future of Work in an AI World?

Much of last year’s presidential campaign was about jobs, particularly “saving” jobs in economically depressed areas. The positive trajectory of this year’s jobs reports has been met with cheers of claims of success by government to “save” jobs, in part by retaining or attracting industry. Yet when the topic of artificial intelligence (AI) is mentioned, optimism is abandoned and hand wringing and pessimism begins. 

Artificial intelligence is broadly defined as the development of computer systems to simulate intelligent human behavior. That means systems that can make decisions, translate languages or pick up on visual or speech cues. At the Technology Policy Institute’s recent Aspen Forum, a panel asked “AI and Automation: A Jobless Future?” 

Some fear that jobs will be lost, and that this time the revolution will replace not just manual laborers but professionals in many careers. Others point out that new careers will be created as new industries arise. Honestly, the real answer is the future will hold some of both. AI will provide benefits that accentuate our lives as we live them now, and new jobs, careers, and industries will arise from the wide deployment of AI. There will certainly be disruption—in some areas automation will do the work that people currently perform, but it is far more likely that people will use AI as a new tool to help them do their jobs better. 

Most of this analysis is done in static terms without considering the longer-term effects of how life will change. Such limited thinking when it comes to the work force is malpractice given the normal significant churn in the labor force every year. Disruption is a constant in a dynamic economy, but despite the jobs that are lost every year, many are also created.  So many that in June there were 6.2 million open positions available across the country. 

Will AI really meet all of labor demand in market after market? Or, more likely, will innovation increase the demand for labor as it has done in the past?  

For example, in the past, horses replaced work that humans used to do. More opportunities became possible and so more work was available. Then the internal combustion engine replaced horses. This positive cycle has been seen again and again. Backhoes replaced shovels and backs, washing machines replaced washboards, and all along the nation grew with increased living standards and better jobs. 

There are things we can be doing to prepare, from a  public policy perspective.  With nearly 25 percent of jobs now requiring a license of some type, we must recognize that government is erecting barriers for people to find new employment. Occupational licensing is in desperate need of reform. Market-driven worker-retraining policies need to be more fully developed. Stackable worker credential programs partnering with technical or higher education are necessary to create more educational pathways and opportunities for workers. Too often politicians reflexively take extreme positions, either claiming that nothing should be done, or that only a massive government program can handle the challenge, proposing such economy killing solutions as a “universal wage.” 

The future is coming. Whether it is “jobless” may well depend on steps we take now.