The threat of AI to jobs raises the question of who protects workers

When Congress held a series of hearings on jobs and technological advances in October 1955, the head of a railroad workers’ organization rose to voice his fears about automation. “There is unease among our workers as they assess the progress of new technology,” said WP Kennedy, president of the Brotherhood of Railroad Trainmen. “Will this lead to increased unemployment rather than economic security? »

The same issue could have been raised before Congress last week during its hearing on artificial intelligence. Indeed, it was.

Sam Altman, chief executive of San Francisco startup OpenAI, testified last Tuesday before members of a Senate subcommittee, urging the government to regulate the growing AI industry. Congressional leaders have raised concerns about the threats AI could pose, including the spread of misinformation and privacy violations.

One of their most pressing concerns was job displacement: Who will take responsibility for protecting workers whose jobs could be transformed, or even eliminated, by generative AI?

Senator Richard Blumenthal, Democrat of Connecticut, said his “biggest long-term nightmare” is the loss of jobs that AI could cause, before telling Mr. Altman: “Let me ask you what is your biggest nightmare.

“There will be an impact on jobs,” replied Mr. Altman. “And I think that will require partnership between industry and government, but more importantly government action.”

Mr. Altman, like so many other leaders unleashing new technologies around the world, has called on the government to take the bulk of the responsibility for supporting workers through the labor market disruptions wrought by AI. It is not yet clear how the government will carry out this task.

Generative AI could automate activities equivalent to 300 million full-time jobs worldwide, according to a recent estimate from Goldman Sachs. Already, IBM’s chief executive has said he expects AI to affect white-collar office workers, eliminating the need for up to 30% of certain roles while creating new ones. The White House is hosting workers on Tuesday for a discussion about their experiences with automation and surveillance technologies in the workplace.

Historically, when automation has led to job losses, the economic impact has tended to be offset by the creation of new jobs. According to the Goldman report, generative artificial intelligence could boost U.S. labor productivity growth by nearly 1.5 percentage points per year over a decade. This could increase annual global gross domestic product by 7%. It could give rise to creative occupations hitherto unimaginable.

But there will be immense instability for displaced workers. Automation has been a major contributor to income inequality in America, according to a study by researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Boston University. According to their estimates, 50 to 70 percent of the changes in the wage structure in the United States since 1980 were due to the loss of income of blue collar and office workers due to automation.

According to research by Daron Acemoglu, an economist at MIT, the regions of the country where robots have been adopted the most intensively, particularly regions in the Midwest with high manufacturing production, have also experienced the steepest declines in employment.

While AI makers have tended to focus on the job-creating potential of the technology, many workers will experience painful disruptions as they try to train and find new, well-paying and fulfilling roles.

“We’ve never been in a period where the scope for automation is potentially so broad,” said Georgetown economist Harry Holzer. “Historically, if your work is automated, you find something new. With AI, what’s a bit scary is that it could just grow and take on more tasks. It’s a moving target.

According to Goldman’s research, administrative and clerical support workers may be particularly concerned about generative AI. And many of them are already expressing concerns.

“It’s really scary,” said Justin Felt, 41, a customer service employee in Pittsburgh who has worked for Verizon Fios for nearly 12 years. He feels that employers haven’t been entirely upfront with their employees about how they’re integrating generative AI into customer support roles, he said. “It definitely takes our job.”

These technologies are flooding workplaces at a rapid pace. BuzzFeed just introduced a chatbot that offers recipe recommendations, McKinsey helps customers use AI to fix tech bugs, and accounting firm KPMG uses ChatGPT to generate code. Some economists have therefore begun to make proposals to protect the workers most likely to be affected.

Workers could benefit, for example, from paid leave policies that allow them to take time off work to develop new skills. Germany already has a similar program, in which workers from most German states can take at least five paid days a year for training courses, an initiative the Minister of Labor recently said he plans to take. extend.

Another possibility is a shift tax, levied on employers when a worker’s job is automated but the person is not retrained, which could make companies more inclined to retrain workers. The government could also offer AI companies financial incentives to create products designed to augment what workers do, rather than replace them – for example, AI that provides TV writers with research but doesn’t write. of scripts, which are likely to be of poor quality.

“If the government sets the agenda in the development of technologies that are more complementary to humans, that would be very important,” Acemoglu said. “Industry expects government to show leadership.”

Previous government efforts to support workers during periods of layoffs have had mixed results. A study by Trade Adjustment Assistance, a U.S. government program that provides financial assistance and training to workers who lose their jobs to trade, found that manufacturing employees who temporarily dropped out of the labor market to participate in the program in the early 2000s had still not caught up with its earnings many years later compared to workers who lost their jobs but did not qualify for TAA assistance.

Many economists say employers could also play a role in helping displaced workers.

“Companies are always looking to government to deal with job loss,” said Simon Johnson, an MIT professor and co-author with Mr Acemoglu of the book “Power and Progress”. “But Microsoft and Alphabet – they’re in the driver’s seat, in terms of where they choose to put their technology resources.”

Workers could benefit, for example, from employers’ apprenticeship and retraining programmes. Accounting giant PwC recently announced a $1 billion investment in generative AI, which includes efforts to train its 65,000 employees in the use of AI. What spurred the initiative was the CEO’s trip to the World Economic Forum gathering in Davos, Switzerland, where he heard constant discussion about generative AI

“A number of us walking out of that room knew something had changed,” recalls Joe Atkinson, the company’s chief product and technology officer.

PwC employees have expressed fears about the move, Atkinson said, especially as their company explores role automation with generative AI. ‘t be eliminated.

Some tech companies offer their employees courses on cloud computing, cybersecurity, and generative AI. science. C3 AI is offering its 1,000 employees bonuses of $250 to $1,500 for certification in technology subjects including AI and cloud computing. KPMG is working to train each of its employees in the use of generative AI

Community colleges are also stepping up their focus on AI. Miami Dade College has received more than $15 million in grants for its technology programs, with some of the money being used to open two centers focused on preparing students for careers in AI Houston Community College recently announced a bachelor’s degree in AI and Robotics, and Southwest Tennessee Community College is working to create an associate degree. The American Association of Community Colleges has launched a network of AI incubators aimed at helping professors teach AI and colleges create AI degrees.

“As Wayne Gretzky once said when asked about his success, ‘I skate where the puck goes,'” said Dennis Natali, a professor at Pikes Peak State College in Colorado, who has published a plan this year to deploy AI certificates. “Our college is constantly assessing the workforce landscape and preparing to support displaced workers.”

As colleges and businesses scramble to retrain workers, some experts are optimistic about this technology transition. They note that throughout history people have feared technological progress but often ended up benefiting from it, dating back to the Luddites, weavers who protested the mechanization of the textile industry.

But that doesn’t mean the transition period will go smoothly. Michael Chui, an artificial intelligence expert at McKinsey, pointed out that even Luddites have seen their income stagnate for decades.

“Anyone who loses their job involuntarily – it’s a tough time,” he said. “Somehow the Luddites weren’t wrong about the risk.”


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