Americans tend to believe that technology will save us from everything. That holds for most things except automation, which many fear will lead to economic catastrophe or widespread job loss. A 2013 Oxford Study showing that nearly half of US jobs are at risk of automation is often cited as evidence of this.
However, this isn’t the only viewpoint. Several studies and thinkers predict a world where machines do the highly repetitive work people don’t care for, leaving us free to move on to other things.
The reasons for AI optimism
National Bureau of Economic Research members Jason Furman and Robert Seamans argue in a study that claims of economic disaster after the rise of automation are greatly exaggerated. They point out that automation-related job losses have been associated with industries with no unmet demand, while in sectors with demand to be met, automation is tied to increases in employment. They also cite economic data showing little relationship between technological advances and unemployment and conclude that automation-based layoffs will likely only elevate unemployment in the short run while encouraging economic growth overall.
A McKinsey and Company report reached similar conclusions, estimating that only 5% of all jobs in 2030 could be done entirely by a machine. The report’s authors suggest that the real potential in automation lies with machines carrying out only very particular tasks. This poses risks to some highly repetitive jobs but will make other jobs easier. The report concludes that layoffs in some industries are likely, but these will be outpaced by job creation resulting from gains across the broader economy.
How will automation impact today’s jobs?
Some experts believe that the rise in automation will be similar to the Industrial Revolution, when some occupations were overtaken by machines and other occupations began to thrive. Just over a hundred years ago, most people were involved in farm work. As parts of the farming process were automated, farm work was replaced with factory work. Similarly, today’s increases in automation will mean fewer people are needed for some jobs, freeing them up to pursue work elsewhere.
As an example, artificial intelligence can now do basic legal research. While AI mostly assists lawyers rather than taking over the research entirely, we can easily imagine a more automated future where AI is capable of doing this research alone. Nobody would expect there to be no lawyers in this future, but rather, attorneys would no longer be concerned with that single task and would dedicate their time to other aspects of their profession.
As with lawyers, the argument goes, as it will be with other jobs. Machines will take over some jobs, but in most professions AI will merely take over specific tasks, leaving the more complex responsibilities for the humans to do. There will still be work. But thanks to automation, it may be less tedious, more intellectually stimulating, and higher-paying than before.