The arrival of artificial intelligence (A.I.) means faster data processing and more efficient automation, but it could also mean massive job losses for human beings. In a study of the impact of A.I. on our future, published by the President’s Council of Economic Advisers, the White House lays out what could be the only way to stave off widespread A.I.-induced unemployment: education.
The report also touches on the trending notion that some or all of our current safety nets for the unemployed could be replaced by a Universal Basic Income (UBI), which would provide cash to citizens regardless of employment status. Proponents of UBI point to A.I. as evidence the concept will work.
But the White House rejects that premise. “The issue is not that automation will render the vast majority of the population unemployable,” read the report. “Instead, it is that workers will either lack the skills or the ability to successfully match with the good, high paying jobs created by automation. While a market economy will do much of the work to match workers with new job opportunities, it does not always do so successfully, as we have seen in the past half-century.”
The report continued: “We should not advance a policy that is premised on giving up on the possibility of workers’ remaining employed.” Instead, there should be a renewed focus on fostering “the skills, training, job search assistance, and other labor market institutions to make sure people can get into jobs, which would much more directly address the employment issues raised by A.I. than would UBI.”
In fact, The White House calls for additional investment in artificial intelligence, especially for “cyberdefense and the detection of fraudulent transactions and messages.”
But how would education change? The Obama administration’s proposal suggests that massive investment is key. “This starts with providing all children with access to high-quality early education so that all families can prepare their students for continued education,” the report read, “as well as investing in graduating all students from high school college- and career- ready, and ensuring that all Americans have access to affordable post-secondary education.”
Adult workers will also need education-related assistance, the report continued: “This includes expanding the availability of job-driven training and opportunities for lifelong learning, as well as providing workers with improved guidance to navigate job transitions.”
The White House also lays its ideals at the feet of the Trump administration: “Responding to the economic effects of A.I.-driven automation will be a significant policy challenge for the next Administration and its successors.”
The paper makes plenty of good arguments for A.I., as well as changing our current slate of educational programs so that students can prepare for the future. Many parallels between our current environment and the Industrial Revolution are made: just as in that bygone era, machines are rapidly altering human labor practices. The key is to avoid (or at least mitigate) some of the unemployment and other economic damage that occurred in past centuries.
Change Is Happening Now
While many consider A.I. a future technology, we can look to Uber’s recent spat with the state of California over the company’s new fleet of self-driving cars to see it has arrived (yes, that was a pun). As the White House report notes: “Advancements in computer vision and related technologies have made the feasibility of fully automated vehicles (AVs), which do not require a human driver, appear more likely, potentially displacing some workers in driving-dominant professions.” In other words, Uber is helping to kill part of the very gig economy that, however ironically, kept so many working in recent economic downturns.
Lower-income positions such as driving for Uber are at high risk of A.I.-driven obsolescence, too. The report notes that 83 percent of positions paying less than $20 per hour are vulnerable to at least some automation, and 63 percent of jobs requiring a high school education or less are “highly automatable.”
With regard to drivers, the White House offers a silver lining. Jobs that don’t lean entirely on driving a vehicle will likely morph into new forms. Take a school bus driver, for example. Rather than focus entirely on the road, the new-look bus driver would have more time for children on the bus while being available to take over driving duties should the automated vehicle need it.
Similarly, a human Uber ‘driver’ could instead become a kind of concierge. Land in San Francisco, and the Uber ‘driver’ who picks you up from the airport will not only tell you to avoid the Tenderloin, but make you a reservation at a local favorite restaurant in Lower Haight… all while the car is navigating the freeways and city independently.
Education Is Key
The lynchpin for our path forward is education and upscaling our existing knowledge base. A.I. will undoubtedly move the needle on traditional education, especially at the high school and university levels, but many massive online open courses (MOOCs) are positioning themselves to ‘upskill’ an existing workforce.
Email service Mailchimp recently tapped Treehouse to help its employees continue their education and stay relevant in the dynamic field of technology. For its part, Treehouse suggested that “it has increased communication between the development team and other departments by getting everyone on the same page, and it has created career mobility internally, for employees who want to move into technical roles.”
Other MOOCs are involved with continued education, from Udacity down through ad hoc services such as Lynda or Coursera; the lattermost actually lets companies customize their own coursework for employees. Considering the cost associated with turnover, internal education is not a bad idea, anyway.
A.I. taking jobs is an alarming thought, and will be a hot-button issue for some time. The White House report is a high-level look at a new reality we’re about to face, and provides some positive insight on how education can help us exist and flourish in this brave new world.