The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Artificial intelligence could cost millions of jobs. The White House says we need more of it.

(Ron Edmonds/AP)
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The growing popularity of artificial intelligence technology will likely lead to millions of lost jobs, especially among less-educated workers, and could exacerbate the economic divide between socioeconomic classes in the United States, according to a newly released White House report.

But that same technology is also essential to improving the country’s productivity growth, a key measure of how efficiently the economy produces goods. That could ultimately lead to higher average wages and fewer work hours. For that reason, the report concludes, our economy actually needs more artificial intelligence, not less.

To reconcile the benefits of the technology with its expected toll, the report states that the federal government should expand access to education in technical fields and increase the scope of unemployment benefits. Those policy recommendations, which the Obama administration has made in the past, could head off some of those job losses and support those who find themselves out of work due to the coming economic shift, according to the report.

The White House report comes exactly one month before President-elect Donald Trump is sworn into office, meaning Obama will need his successor to execute on the policy recommendations. That seems unlikely to happen, especially as far as unemployment protections are concerned. Congressional Republicans already aim to curtail some existing entitlement programs to reduce government spending.

Rolling back Social Security protections for out-of-work families “would potentially be more risky at a time when you have these types of changes in the economy that we’re documenting in this report,” Jason Furman, the chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers, said in a call with reporters.

Research conducted in recent years varies widely on how many jobs will be displaced due to artificial intelligence, according to the report. A 2016 study from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development estimates that 9 percent of jobs would be completely displaced in the next two decades. Many more jobs will be transformed, if not eliminated. Two academics from Oxford University, however, put that number at 47 percent in a study conducted in 2013.

The staggering difference illustrates how much the impact of artificial intelligence remains speculative. While certain industries, such as transportation and agriculture, appear to be embracing the technology with relative haste, others are likely to face a slower period of adoption.

“If these estimates of threatened jobs translate into job displacement, millions of Americans will have their livelihoods significantly altered and potentially face considerable economic challenges in the short- and medium-term,” the White House report states.

Those same studies were consistent, however, when it came to the population that would feel the economic brunt of artificial intelligence. The workers earning less than $20 per hour and without a high school diploma would be most likely to see their jobs automated away. The projections improved if workers earned higher wages or obtained higher levels of education.

Jobs that involve a high degree of creativity, analytical thinking or interpersonal communication are considered most secure.

The report also highlights potential advantages of the technology. It could lead to greater labor productivity, meaning workers have to work fewer hours to produce the same amount. That could lead to more leisure time and a higher quality of life, the report notes.

“As we look at AI, our biggest economic concern is that we won’t have enough of it, that we won’t have enough productivity growth,” Furman said. “Anything we can do to have more AI will lead to more productivity growth.”

To that end, the report calls for further investment in artificial intelligence research and development. Specifically, the White House sees the technology’s applications in cyber defense and fraud detection as particularly promising.

Read more from The Washington Post’s Innovations section