Why “How many jobs will be killed by AI?” is the wrong...

Why “How many jobs will be killed by AI?” is the wrong question

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By Andrew McAfee and Erik Brynjolfsson | LinkedIn & Image by VCG/Getty Images

Over the past few years we’ve developed artificially intelligent machines that can do many things that used to require human minds: understanding speech, diagnosing disease, checking the terms of a contract, designing a mechanical part from scratch, even coming up with new scientific hypotheses that are supported by subsequent research. As this new software is embedded in hardware we’ll get self-driving cars, trucks, and combines; delivery and inspection drones; and robots of many kinds.

These technologies are improving more quickly than even their creators would have predicted at the start of the decade, and the fact that the world’s best players of both the Asian strategy game go and no limit heads up Texas hold-em poker are now AI systems indicates just how deeply they’re encroaching into human territory.

So shouldn’t we be preparing ourselves for massive AI-induced technological unemployment? A widely cited 2015 analysis by Carl Frey and Michael Osborne of Oxford University found that 47% of current jobs in the US were susceptible to computerization. And some jobs look especially ripe for automation. As self-driving technology advances it seems likely that many of America’s approximately 3.5 million truck drivers could find themselves out of a job.

Despite these scary statistics and scenarios, however, there’s no need to panic. For one thing, previous predictions about losses and gains over time in specific jobs have almost always been way off, and there’s little reason to believe the current crop will be any better. For another, the Oxford study looked only at destruction, and not also creation. It didn’t try to estimate how many new jobs and job categories will come along with future technological progress. There will surely be many of these, from robot wranglers to AI interpreters. Finally, while 3.5 million jobs sound like a lot to lose, there are almost that many layoffs every two months in the United States, and another six million or so people voluntarily leaving their jobs. The American economy is both huge and dynamic; large numbers of jobs are lost all the time, and even more are created.

In fact, a look at recent economic data clearly shows that the demand for good old-fashioned human labor keeps growing, even as AI and other science fiction technologies keep advancing.

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