Recent progress in artificial intelligence and robotics suggests that we are likely to see astonishing advances over the course of the coming decades. These innovations will make the production of goods and services of all kinds more efficient and affordable and are sure to have enormous benefits for all of humanity.
There is, however, a dark side to all this progress: a great many workers will likely face displacement by machines. A large percentage of jobs are, on some level, essentially routine and repetitive in nature. In other words, the job can be broken down into a discrete set of tasks that tend to get repeated on a predictable basis. As machine learning and robotics technologies advance, a large fraction of these job types will be at risk of being automated away.
This concern is not dependent on far fetched science fiction-level technology: rather, it is based on a simple extrapolation of the expert systems and sophisticated algorithms that can currently land jet airplanes, trade autonomously on Wall Street, or—as recently demonstrated by Google’s DeepMind technology—beat the world’s best champions of the ancient game of “Go.” As technology progresses, these systems will begin to match or exceed the capability of human workers in many routine job categories—and this includes a lot of workers with college degrees or other significant training. Many workers will also be increasingly threatened by the continuing trend toward self-service technologies that push tasks onto consumers.
As we look forward to the coming years and decades, one of our most important challenges is likely to be finding a way to leverage all this progress on behalf of everyone at every level of our society. Without specific policies designed to adapt to these trends, we run the risk that both society and the economy will become ever more unequal—with a small elite thriving, while a large fraction of workers are left behind and may even face a threat to their basic economic security.
Addressing this challenge won’t be easy and it may well require the implementation of unprecedented policies—such as a universal basic income. We should begin to develop workable solutions to the coming disruption as soon as possible. Information technology continues to advance exponentially, and the impact on the job market could well materialize long before we are prepared for it.