US experts warn AI likely to kill off jobs – and widen wealth inequality
ChatGPT is just the latest technology to fuel worries that it will wipe out the jobs of millions of workers, whether advertising copywriters, Wall Street traders, salespeople, writers of basic computer code or journalists.
But while many workforce experts say the fears that ChatGPT and other artificial intelligence (AI) technologies will cause unemployment to skyrocket are overblown, they point to another fear about AI: that it will widen the US’s already huge income and wealth inequality by creating a new wave of billionaire tech barons at the same time that it pushes many workers out of better paid jobs.
Like many revolutionary technologies before it, AI is likely to eliminate jobs. But, as has been the case in the past, experts argue, AI will likely offset much of that by spurring the creation of new jobs in addition to enhancing many existing jobs. The big question is: what sort of jobs?
“AI will wipe out a lot of current jobs, as has happened with all past technologies,” said Lawrence Katz, a labor economist at Harvard. “But I have no reason to think that AI and robots won’t continue changing the mix of jobs. The question is: will the change in the mix of jobs exacerbate existing inequalities? Will AI raise productivity so much that even as it displaces a lot of jobs, it creates new ones and raises living standards?”
Anu Madgavkar, who leads labor market research at the McKinsey Global Institute, estimates that one in four workers in the US are going to see more AI and technology adopted in their jobs. She said 50-60% of companies say they are pursuing AI-related projects. “So one way or the other people are going to have to learn to work with AI,” Madgavkar said.
While past rounds of automation affected factory jobs most, Madgavkar said that AI will hit white-collar jobs most. “It’s increasingly going into office-based work and customer service and sales,” she said. “They are the job categories that will have the highest rate of automation adoption and the biggest displacement. These workers will have to work with it or move into different skills.”
In other words, many office workers could face downward mobility.
Workforce experts are asking many questions about AI: will it displace many call-center workers or merely make those workers more productive by quickly delivering needed information to them as they speak to customers? Will AI displace radiologists because of its ability to read cancer scans or will it help radiologists by enabling them to focus on more complicated, nuanced issues in interpreting scans? Will AI be able to replace some journalists by writing stories about baseball games or Wall Street’s daily ups and downs?
Some workforce experts say AI and other new technologies will hurt middle-level, white-collar jobs more than lower-paying, physically intensive jobs. McKinsey’s Madgavkar said it will be hard for AI or robots to do the jobs of janitors. In food service, she said, new technologies might be able to take customer orders, but “we’re not going to see many little robots that bring the food to a particular table”.
At law firms, AI might eliminate some attorneys’ jobs by being able to prepare first drafts of business contracts. But AI might also enable paralegals to oversee preparation of draft contracts, and that increased responsibility could mean higher pay for paralegals.
“If you make workers more productive, workers are then supposed to make more money,” said William Spriggs, an economics professor at Howard University and chief economist at the AFL-CIO, the nation’s main labor federation. “Companies don’t want to have a discussion about sharing the benefits of these technologies. They’d rather have a discussion to scare the bejesus out of you about these new technologies. They want you to concede that you’re just grateful to have a job and that you’ll pay us peanuts.”
Spriggs noted that when a wave of automation swept through the auto industry from the 1950s through 1970s, “the UAW said to Ford and GM, we’re a lot more productive and you’re a lot more profitable. As a result, the workers got a lot more money.”
David Autor, an economics professor at MIT, is wary of making predictions about ChatGPT and AI. “There’s just enormous uncertainty,” he said.
But he’s not concerned with the US running out of jobs. “If anything, we don’t have enough people for jobs right now,” he said. “I’m concerned about the change of composition in jobs.” He voiced concern that AI, by eliminating some middle-class jobs and de-skilling some jobs, will move many workers into lower-paying jobs like food service. “The concern is: will AI reduce the value of a lot of skill sets and make labor more commodified?”
New technologies like AI often produce jobs that no one could predict – before the invention of computers, who would have foreseen the job of computer programmer? Workforce experts say AI will create more jobs for engineers and certain types of managers, and that any AI-caused decrease in jobs could be offset by increases in the number of healthcare jobs as the overall population ages. AI might call for a beefed-up system of retraining to, for instance, prepare a laid-off salesperson for a hospital job.
Juliet Schor, an economist at Boston College, said it would be far better if employers, instead of laying off people because of AI, would trim employees’ work time, perhaps to three or four days a week, instead of five. “Work-time reduction is really the far better way to respond to labor-displacing technological change,” Schor said. She voiced fears that AI could produce a large pool of jobless Americans, and even with some system of universal basic income, “that would create inequality between the people who have work and the people who don’t. That’s a big problem.”
Julie Shah, an MIT professor who leads the Interactive Robotics Group at MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, said she works with employers to get them to use AI and robots to “augment and enhance workers, rather than replace them”. She said some employers want to use robots to have a lights-out factory without any human workers, while other companies want robots to work alongside humans to make them more efficient — and to have human workers on hand to propose future ideas for innovation.
Shah pointed to a study of large French corporations that introduced robots; those firms increased overall employment even as their domestic competitors reduced their workforce. She also cited a study of Canadian companies that began using robots and ultimately reduced the number of middle managers, while increasing the number of production workers. In the US, she noted, some companies adopted robots and offered higher wages, while having fewer jobs overall.
“These technologies are not leading to one future, but to many possible futures,” Shah said.
Harvard’s Katz is also worried about AI’s effects on income inequality. “It’s likely to continue to reduce labor’s share of income as many tasks get automated,” he said.
Katz said a big issue is who will share in the gains if AI yields major productivity growth, and how those gains will be shared. “How much will need to come through redistribution policies?” he asked. “If it’s really good and massively increases productivity, even if workers get a smaller share of the pie, they could end up with higher incomes.”
But these gains are unlikely to trickle down to workers in the US given current circumstances. “Having a stronger say for workers and their representatives in this process is an important element to adjusting to these changes. That’s happened in countries that have stronger unions and works councils. That’s an area where we in the US have fallen behind,” Katz said.