Our Misplaced Fear of Job-Stealing Robots – or is it misplaced ?

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Our Misplaced Fear of Job-Stealing Robots

Some good news: The robots aren’t coming for your job. Experts say fears that rapid advances in artificial intelligence, machine learning, and automation will leave all of us unemployed are vastly overstated.

Scholars and AI experts met at Stanford GSB on February 1 to discuss how technology is changing the workplace. The forum was sponsored by the Stanford Institute for Human-Centered Artificial Intelligence, a Stanford-wide organization focused on the social and ethical implications of artificial intelligence. The event included a panel discussion moderated by Susan Athey, a Stanford GSB economics professor, featuring:

That’s not to say that artificial intelligence isn’t having a profound effect on many areas of the economy. It is, of course. But understanding the link between the two trends is difficult and it’s easy to make misleading assumptions about the kinds of jobs that are in danger of becoming obsolete. “Most jobs are more complex than [many people] realize,” said Google’s chief economist, Hal Varian, during a forum on the future of work, which was sponsored by the Stanford Institute for Human-Centered Artificial Intelligence.

When predicting future labor market outcomes, it is important to consider both sides of the supply and demand equation, says Varian, founding dean of the School of Information at the University of California, Berkeley. Most popular discussion around technology focuses on factors that decrease demand for labor by replacing workers with machines. However, demographic trends that point to a substantial decrease in the supply of labor are potentially larger in magnitude. Demographic trends are also easier to predict, since we already know, aside from immigration and catastrophes, how many 40-year-olds will live in a country 30 years from now. Comparing the most aggressive expert estimates about the impact of automation on labor supply with demographic trends that point to a workforce reduction, Varian finds that the demographic effect on the labor market is 53% larger than the automation effect. Thus, real wages are more likely to increase than to decrease when both factors are considered.

Looming over all of the changes to the labor force is the stark fact that birth rates in the U.S. are at an all-time low, says Varian. As has been widely reported, the aging of the baby-boom generation creates demand for service jobs but leaves fewer workers actively contributing labor to the economy.

The robots may not be taking over just yet, but advances in artificial intelligence and machine learning will eventually become more of a challenge to the workforce. Still, it’s heartening to be reminded that, for now, “humans are underrated.”

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