Job Disruptions Will Come from Artificial Intelligence – How Severe Will They Be?

There are 8 million retail clerks in the United States – and new retail stores that don’t employ clerks.

It has 2.5 million truck drivers – and new self-driving technology that can move goods from point to point without a driver behind the wheel.

It has a million taxi and ride-sharing drivers – and that same self-driving technology is being tested in some cities.

“Just with these areas right here, you’re talking about millions of jobs,” said Darrell West, vice president and director of governance studies at the Brookings Institution, a think tank in Washington.

West (bio, Twitter) is the author of the recent book “The Future of Work: Robots, AI and Automation” (Amazon, Brookings) and also director of Brookings’ Center for Technology Innovation.

West led National Press Foundation fellows studying artificial intelligence issues through the impact of AI on the U.S. labor market, as well as how those new technologies intersect with the U.S. political system.

Studies aiming to predict the impact of AI on the workforce are all over the map in their conclusions – from the low teens to half of the workforce.

“I am at the low end of that estimate,” West said. “I don’t think half the people are going to be unemployed or underemployed.”

But, he cautioned, it only took a 10 percent national unemployment rate during and after the recession of 2007-2009 to produce the tea party, populism and Donald Trump.

“Even if the workforce impact is only 5 or 10 percent, we will feel that,” he said.

Because technology changes come in waves, the nation does have the ability to mitigate some of those losses. West said society needs to move toward lifelong learning. People can’t stop their formal educations in their early 20s and keep up with the changing economy.

“In the short run, we are going to have a big mismatch in the skills that are going to be needed in the 21st Century and the skills that people have,” he said. “The good thing is we control our future here. … The odds are good that we can end up with a utopia rather than a dystopia, if we make the proper policy changes.”


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