Recently, artificial intelligence has advanced so rapidly that it seems hardly a month goes by without a newsworthy AI breakthrough. Across a range of fields, from speech translation to medical diagnosis to gameplay, computers have surpassed humans in startling ways.
AI has sparked a discussion about how it will affect employment. AI is feared to replace workers, creating a pool of unemployable humans that cannot compete economically with machines as AI improves.
The concern, while understandable, is unfounded. The AI revolution will be the world’s greatest job engine.
1. It’s No Longer a New Phenomenon to Have new technology
One can excuse those who predict massive job losses as a result of AI. The disruption of existing jobs by new technology is easier to see than the creation of new jobs enabled by it.
Nonetheless, radical technological advances are not a new phenomenon. For virtually all of the past 250 years, technology has advanced nonstop, but unemployment in the US has remained between 5 and 10 percent, even when radical new technologies like steam power and electricity were introduced.
There is no need to look back at steam or electricity. The internet is full of information. Let’s go back 25 years, well within the memory of today’s pessimistic prognosticators, to 1993. A few months earlier, Mosaic had just been released, and the phrase “surfing the web” was just becoming popular.
It might have occurred to you that email would reduce the number of letters we send, and the web might lead us to read fewer newspapers and perhaps even do our shopping online if a couple billion computers were connected to a giant network with common protocols. You might have predicted that travel agents and stockbrokers would be adversely affected by this technology if you were exceptionally farsighted. On the basis of those surmises, you may have believed that the internet would destroy jobs.
However, now we know the truth. It is true that the obvious changes have taken place. As well as expected changes, there were some unexpected ones. Millions of new companies were created worth trillions of dollars. Our technology improved the lives of virtually everyone on earth. From web designers to data scientists to online marketers, dozens of new careers have emerged. As a result, the costs of starting a business with global reach have plummeted, and the cost of communicating with customers and leads has plummeted as well. A vast amount of information was made freely available and used by entrepreneurs around the world to build new kinds of businesses.
The amount of mail we send and the number of newspapers we buy have decreased.
2. Artificial Intelligence and its Rise
There was then a new, even more powerful technology: artificial intelligence. Every time you hear “it will destroy jobs,” you hear the same refrain.
ATMs are a good example. In terms of technology that might replace people, ATMs might look like a good bet; after all, they’re automatedteller machines. However, there are more tellers now than when ATMs were widely available. Why would this be the case? By lowering the opening costs of bank branches, ATMs encouraged banks to open more, which led to more teller hiring.
Using AI, millions of jobs will be created beyond our imagination. AI is becoming adept at language translation, for instance-and the demand for human translators is soaring. How come? By reducing the cost of basic translation to nearly zero, businesses can do business more easily with those who speak other languages. In this way, it encourages companies to expand overseas, resulting in a higher demand for translators. Simple translations can be done with AI, but nuanced translations require humans.
There are many occupations where AI is expected to have a faster-than-average growth rate, including accountants, forensic scientists, geologists, technical writers, MRI operators, dietitians, financial specialists, web developers, loan officers, medical secretaries, and customer service representatives. It is not because of AI that these fields will experience job growth, but because of it.
The real gains in jobs will be found in places where our imaginations cannot yet reach.
3. The Parsing of Pessimism
One morning, you may remember hearing that “47 percent of jobs will be lost to technology.”
It is a fine piece of work by Carl Frey and Michael Osborne, but readers and the media have distorted their 47 percent number. According to the authors, 47 percent of jobs will be automated, not all of them.
In their ranking of occupations based on “probability of computerization,” Frey and Osborne give 65 percent or higher probability to research assistants in the social sciences, atmospheric and space scientists, and pharmacy assistants. Is this a good thing or a terrible thing? There will be no research assistants for social science professors? They will, of course. Because much of what they do today will be automated, they will just do things differently.
In 2016, the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development released its own report. It uses a different “whole occupations” methodology and puts the share of jobs potentially lost to computerization at nine percent. In an economy like ours, churn is normal.
How does the skills gap affect the economy? Can AI eliminate low-skilled workers and create jobs for high-skilled workers? Most people can handle a job that’s just a little more complicated than the one they have now. The industrial revolution led to farmers becoming factory workers, factory workers becoming factory managers, etc.
4. Artificial Intelligence in the Workplace
According to Accenture’s “Reworking the Revolution” report, new applications of AI combined with human collaboration could boost employment worldwide by 10 percent by 2020.
As the assembly line, mechanical power and electricity changed the world, so did electricity. There is no reason to believe we would be better off without those technologies. We all benefit from each of them. They improved our quality of life, created jobs, and raised wages. Unlike electricity, mechanization, or anything else before it, artificial intelligence will be a game changer.
Free economies work this way, and automation has never caused us to run out of jobs. Each time automation steals a job, unemployment increases progressively. The world has as many jobs as buyers and sellers.