“They will learn from the workflow in which they’re engaged,” Autor says. “Often people will be in the process of working with a tool, and the tool will be learning from that interaction.”
Whether you’re training an AI tool directly by interacting with it throughout the day, or the data you’re producing while you work is simply being used to create an AI program that can do the work you’re doing, there are multiple ways in which a worker could inadvertently end up training an AI program to replace them. Even if the program doesn’t end up being incredibly effective, a lot of companies might be happy with an AI program that’s good enough because it doesn’t require a salary and benefits.
“I think there are a lot of discretionary white-collar jobs where you’re kind of using a mixture of hard information and soft information and trying to make advanced decisions,” Autor says. “People aren’t that good at that, machines aren’t that good at that, but probably machines can be pretty much as good as people.”
Autor says he doesn’t see a “labor market apocalypse” coming. Many workers won’t be entirely replaced but will simply have their jobs changed by AI, Autor says, while some workers will certainly be made redundant by advancements in AI. The problem there, he says, is what happens to those workers after they’re no longer able to find a well-paying job with the education and skill sets they have.
“It’s not that we’re going to run out of work. It’s much more that people are doing something they’re good at, and that thing goes away. And then they end up doing a kind of generic activity that everybody’s good at, which means it pays very little—food service, cleaning, security, vehicle driving,” Autor says. “These are low-paying activities.”
Once someone’s automated out of a well-paying job, they can end up slipping through the cracks. Autor says we’ve seen this happen in the past.
“The hollowing out of manufacturing and office work over the past 40 years has definitely put downward pressure on the wages of people who would do that type of work, and it’s not because they’re doing it now at a lower rate of pay. It’s because they’re not doing it,” Autor says.
Frey says politicians will need to offer solutions to those who fall through the cracks to prevent the destabilization of the economy and society. That would likely include offering social safety net programs to those affected. Frey has written extensively on the effects of the first Industrial Revolution, and he says there are lessons to be learned there. In Britain, for example, there was a program called the Poor Laws, where people who were harmed by automation were given financial relief.
“What you see back then is a lot of social unrest. Wages are stagnant or falling for a large part of the population. You have riots,” Frey says. “If you look at the places where the Poor Laws were more generous, there was less social unrest and less upheaval. Using welfare systems to compensate people who lose out is something we’ve done for a long time and should continue to do.”