In the past few years, artificial intelligence has advanced so quickly that it now seems that hardly a month goes by without a newsworthy AI breakthrough. In areas as wide-ranging as speech translation, medical diagnosis and game play, we have seen computers outperform humans in startling ways. This has sparked a discussion about what impact AI will have on employment.
Some fear that as AI improves, it will supplant workers in the job force, creating an ever-growing pool of unemployable humans who cannot economically compete with machines in any meaningful way. This concern, while understandable, is unfounded.
AI will be the greatest job engine the world has ever seen.
Technology has progressed nonstop for 250 years, and in the U.S. unemployment has stayed within a narrow band of 5 to 10 percent for almost all that time, even when radical new technologies such as steam power and electricity came on the scene.
AI is the most empowering of all technologies because it effectively makes anyone who uses it smarter. It increases the productivity of anyone who can apply it to their job. Once again, you hear the same refrain: “It will destroy jobs.” And sure, you can look around and find jobs that it might well eliminate, such as order taker at a fast-food restaurant. But, that is not in any way the entire story.
No, the whole story involves the other part of the equation. What will this technology enable?
Consider the ATM. If you had to point to a technology that looked as though it would replace people, the ATM might look like a good bet. It is, after all, an automated teller machine. And yet, there are more tellers now than when ATMs were widely released. How can this be? Simple: ATMs lowered the cost of opening bank branches, and banks responded by opening more, which required hiring more tellers.
This is one of the fundamental dynamics of technology and employment. As technology lowers costs, people respond by one of two things: They either buy more of the item (as banks did with branches) or they spend their saved money elsewhere, creating new jobs in those areas.
In this manner, AI is going to create many millions of jobs that are far beyond my meager ability to imagine. But, examples already abound. For instance, AI is getting really good at language translation. What do you expect that to do to the demand for human translators? According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, it is skyrocketing. Why? If you lower the cost of basic translation to nearly zero, the cost of doing business with those who speak other languages falls. Thus, it emboldens companies to do more business overseas, creating more work for human translators. AI may do the “simple” translations, but humans are needed for the nuanced kind.
In fact, the BLS forecasts faster-than-average job growth in many occupations that AI is going to have a large impact on: accountants, forensic scientists, geological technicians, technical writers, MRI operators, dietitians, financial specialists, web developers, loan officers, medical secretaries and customer service representatives, to name a very few. These fields will not experience job growth in spite of AI, but through it. These are all areas in which AI can aid humans and increase their productivity and wages.
But, just as with the internet, the real gains in jobs will come from places where our imaginations cannot yet take us.
But, what of the skills gap? Will AI eliminate low-skill jobs and create only high-skill ones? This is far from certain, but let’s entertain the idea. If this happens, are all those low-skill workers unemployable? Far from it.
The relevant question is whether most people can do a job that’s just a little more complicated than the one they currently have. If you agree with me that the answer is yes, then no worries. The whole workforce just shifts up a notch. Everyone, from entry level to PhD, just moves up the job ladder a bit. This is exactly what happened with the industrial revolution: Farmers became factory workers, factory workers became factory managers, and so on.
New jobs created at the top are opportunities for everyone to get a promotion.
A January 2018 Accenture report “Reworking the Revolution” estimates that new applications of AI combined with human collaboration can boost employment worldwide 10 percent by 2020.
Electricity changed the world, as did mechanical power, as did the assembly line. No one can reasonably claim that we would be better off without those technologies. Each of them bettered our lives, created jobs and boosted wages. AI will be bigger than electricity, bigger than mechanization, bigger than anything that has come before it. It, too, will make the world a better place and, yes, create jobs.