Editor’s note: Igor Jablokov is CEO of Pryon, an Eisenhower Fellow, a Truman National Security Fellow, and an Outstanding Engineering Alumnus of The Pennsylvania State University.
This article was originally published in Forbes.
RALEIGH — The U.S. economy continues to expand, with reports from the Bureau of Labor Statistics indicating there are more job openings in the U.S. than people to fill them. Despite this data, working Americans are very concerned about job loss due to artificial intelligence (A) and automation, especially as politicians fan the flames of fear to gain advantage as the election race heats up.
Former Democratic primary candidate and tech entrepreneur Andrew Yang has proposed the Freedom Dividend, a form of universal basic income (UBI) to supplement income lost by automation. Senator Elizabeth Warren is instead focusing on policy reform, training her sights on the multinational corporations moving their factories overseas. Former Vice President Joe Biden has proposed 14 years of public education in an effort to prepare workers for a future where technology reigns.
The breakneck pace at which new AI capabilities are advancing makes people think their jobs — or entire career fields — will be obsolete within a few years. However, historical precedent and an honest evaluation of how work evolves reveal that politicians, economists and pundits have decried advancements in technologies for decades while ignoring one simple factor that makes their arguments collapse: the ability of time to iron things out.
During the Industrial Revolution, the Luddites, a secret radical faction of textile workers in England, responded to the introduction of the power loom by destroying the machines over fears that machines would completely eradicate skilled workers. Over time, the power loom persevered, and by 1850, there were more than 250,000 power looms in use.
In 1908, the Model T likely threatened coach drivers and railroad conductors. While there has been a gradual decrease in those jobs over time, we can’t find the “1909 Model T recession” in our history books. Today, and in the same way, autonomous vehicles “threaten” the trucking industry.
However, the march to autonomous vehicle deployment has stalled as challenges emerge such as trouble “seeing” in inclement weather and being susceptible to hacking. Even if we find the best engineers to fix these issues within the next couple of years, there’s still the issue of upgrading the transportation infrastructure.
Roads in the U.S. are not built to handle fleets of autonomous vehicles. Driverless trucks will drain a tremendous amount of energy from the electrical grid, and they’ll need massive charging stations to “refuel.” Likewise, the newest autonomous vehicle offerings will run on 5G, but we don’t yet have the needed 5G infrastructure in place.
In the meantime, the trucking workforce has read the writing on the wall. According to the American Trucking Association, the industry was unable to fill more than 60,000 jobs in 2018 and warns the shortage could swell to over 160,000 by 2028. The labor pool has clearly already migrated away in search of more secure economic opportunities. By the time we solve the technological and infrastructure challenges, autonomous vehicles will simply be filling in for a nonexistent workforce that’s off chasing more productive endeavors.
This is just one example, but broader examinations of the impact of technology support the vision of a comfortable transition to AI rather than a jarring dystopia. A report from MIT says that despite the fear that automation kills jobs, industrialized countries will have more job openings than workers to fill them.
For example, AI was introduced to the traditional model of a call center years before many other industries. Through automated messaging, AI bots are able to give customers the exact information they’re searching for when they need it, eliminating the need to interact with humans.
While this type of AI works much of the time and pulls incredible amounts of data that can be used to improve the customer experience, it can’t respond with a human touch. People are still needed to respond to complex questions and calm upset customers. People are also needed to formulate the automated messages that AI bots respond with. Call center employees leverage data from AI to provide better customer service, but their emotional intelligence skills are still critical to customer retention. The ultimate outcome of AI in call centers has been a more efficient and effective workforce of approximately the same size.
Instead of stifling the potential of AI and suppressing an economic expansion with fearmongering about automation’s impact on jobs, society should embrace this massive potential for change in the labor market. If AI can increase efficiency and productivity, workers won’t need to be tethered to their desks or stay on-site for eight hours a day. Instead, people will become better at their work as augmented intelligence combines the best of people and machines.
Of course, corporations might decrease pay as AI machines roll out in the workplace, hence Yang’s support for UBI. But instead of a UBI that’s potentially untenable, we can instead leverage capitalism to place incentives in the ecosystem to guide our current and future workers as they transition to self-reliance.
Corporations need to do their part, too. They should pay their fair share of taxes, with a portion of these funds going to education for the employees who want to service the new AI economy. If corporations are benefiting from human labor, their taxes should go back into investing in that labor through education.
It’s productive to discuss how the workforce needs to adapt to new technologies, but those who use fear to sway public opinion will have the same legacy as the Luddites. Ultimately, people are motivated by opportunity. We understand the downsides and have seen them before. Instead of succumbing to our fears, let’s see what AI has to offer humanity. It could be more than we ever imagined. After all, history and time are on our side.