The widespread use of artificial intelligence in society today is a technological wonder. Smart phones, smart cars, automated assembly lines and other intelligent devices make life easier, more productive and more connected to one another. But does this technology take away jobs from real people? Some say that the data points that way.

What is AI?

The term Artificial intelligence was first coined in 1956 by Alan Turing and refers to intelligent machines that can reason, learn, perceive, solve problems and understand language. While the technology has grown slowly over the past 50 years, the digital revolution of the last 20 years has positioned the field of artificial intelligence to greater influence in the world in many ways.

According to a 2016 White House report, AI’s progression has broad implications for various industries, including transportation, health care, public safety and education. This transformative technology, however, comes with complex challenges and risks, including concerns about whether intelligent machines will eventually replace the entire human labor work force.

Impact of AI on the Economy

AI-driven automation is expected to change the economy over the coming decades, although there remains great uncertainty about how strongly these shifts will be felt. A government report indicated that the effects of AI would be spread unevenly throughout the economy because some industries will be able to adapt intelligent machines more quickly than others.

Trends suggest that the effects of AI on the labor market in the near term will follow that of the digital revolution of the past two decades, where computerization, computer software and hardware made massive strides and changed how we live and work.

The data also suggests that jobs may be at risk. Researchers estimate that the scale of threatened jobs due to AI over the next decade or two may range from 9 percent and 47 percent. Researchers say the U.S. economy is capable of handling this scale of change but that it will depend on the occupations affected and the size of those losses.

Robots and Jobs

A March 2017 report by the National Bureau of Economic Research analyzed the increase in industrial robot use between 1990 and 2007 in the U.S. labor markets. The study’s authors say the use of AI-driven industrial robots may reduce employment and wages in the U.S. economy. This possible increase of “technological unemployment” is attributed to the rise in the number of robots from 1993 to 2007 that that perform tasks human labor once did.

There are an estimated 1.5 million to 1.75 million robots in operation in the U.S., mainly used in the automotive, electronics, metal products, plastic and chemical industries. That number is slated to increase to 4 million to 6 million robots by 2025. Male workers are expected to be nearly two times more impacted by this change than female workers.

Estimates are that one more robot per a thousand workers reduces the employment ratio by about 0.18-0.34 percentage points. The report also noted there were negative and positive effects because of the higher number of robots in the economy. The negative impact was that robots displaced human workers from their jobs. The positive impact was that they cut production costs for companies.

Jobs and the Automated Vehicle

One area that has received a lot of attention when it comes to the impact of artificial intelligence on jobs is the automated or self-driving vehicle. Researchers expect that eventually, this technology will negatively impact the labor market by an estimated 2.2 million to 3.1 million full-time and part-time jobs. This doesn’t include another 364,000 people who are self-employed as full-time or part-time drivers for ride-sharing services such as Lyft and Uber.

Researchers say it may take years, or even decades, for self-driving cars to turn over this job market. In some cases, these affected workers may still have jobs but in substantially altered ways. For example, the occupation of school bus driver is not likely to vanish because of self-driving buses. Instead, this job may change to be one whose main duties is overseeing students instead of driving the bus.

There are also positive sides to any future widespread use of automated vehicles. There could be more productivity because workers would have more time to focus on other job responsibilities instead of driving. For example, salespeople who spend a lot of time driving could instead be calling clients while the automated vehicle drove them to and from appointments. Also, home and building inspectors could have more time to prepare reports for their customers more quickly if their cars drove themselves from property to property.

Can AI Create Enough New Jobs?

Because the impact of AI-driven technology in the future remains uncertain, experts say predicting potential job growth will be challenging. They predict there will be growth in jobs where humans work with AI technologies as an operator, developer, supervisor or facilitator. They say human workers will continue to be needed because the current limits on the manual dexterity of robots and the intelligence of these machines. Some industries will use AI technology simply as machines that assist and expand the productivity of human workers, instead of replacing them.

The End of Work?

Other researchers have taken a more radical view of how the labor market will be affected by AI. They say continued advances in intelligent machines could one day not just complement but substitute the entire human workforce. They speculate that if human labor is not needed, there’ll be a fundamental shift in the economy because there would be no workers to have to pay.

The great uncertainty of how artificial intelligence will affect the labor market remains unknown. AI could simply become another technology that companies and people come to accept and use without second thought. Or, it could drastically shake up industries through automation and job loss.

Policymakers, industry leaders, the private sector and the public will need to work together to ensure safeguards no matter where intelligent or smart machines take us.

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