Skip to main content
A visitor fist bumps a humanoid robot at the booth of IBG at Hannover Messe, the trade fair in Hanover, Germany, April 23, 2018. REUTERS/Fabian Bimmer - RC142BBE3900
Brookings Now

Artificial intelligence will disrupt the future of work. Are we ready?

Will you and your coworkers be replaced by robots? The answer to this question and more can be found in Darrell West’s new book, “The Future of Work: Robotics, AI, and Automation.” As innovations in artificial intelligence, robotics, and other technology bring us virtual assistants, wearable health tech, autonomous vehicles, and more, many industries are transforming rapidly. While these new technologies have brought unimaginable benefits, they also are disrupting many industries and changing the structure of the workforce.

To prepare for these changes, it is important that society rethink what constitutes work and begin to prepare people for a world of dislocation. In his new book, Darrell West, director of the Center for Technology Innovation at Brookings, explains how to prepare for the inevitable transition.

There will be fewer jobs in the future.

West explains that companies need fewer and fewer employees today, opting instead for a small workforce, an external supply chain, and independent contractors. When asked, 58 percent of CEOs said they planned on reducing jobs, while only 16 percent planned on increasing jobs. It is true that technology is creating jobs as well as eliminating them. For the most part, these new jobs are better, but fewer in number.

These changes are also happening much more rapidly than many people realize. AI is expected to be better equipped than humans to write a high school essay by 2026, drive a truck by 2027, work in retail by 2031, write a best-selling book by 2049, and perform surgery by 2053. There is a 50 percent chance AI will outperform all human tasks in 45 years and automate all human jobs in 120 years.

Depending on the particular study, these innovations mean anywhere from 14 to 54 percent of U.S. workers have a high probability of seeing their jobs automated over the next 20 years. Young people and racial minorities, who tend to be lower qualified workers, are especially vulnerable to dislocation and unemployment.

We shouldn’t fight the growth of AI, robotics and automation.

While AI, robots, and other new technology is disrupting the workforce, innovation in these emerging technologies is causing many social and economic benefits.

For example, as West describes, virtual reality is helping people prepare for disaster response, innovating games and entertainment, training the military, and assisting people with anxiety or other mental health issues. Police body cameras have reduced the use of force by half. Young cancer patients can now attend school virtually while they receive treatment. Digital medicine provides remote access to images and the ability to share medical information across geographic areas, allowing the health care system to overcome disparities based on geography, income, or class system and helping underserved rural or urban populations

There are also many economic benefits associated with the rise of these new technologies. In the health care sector alone, the savings are enormous. Cost savings through e-health are expected to be between 10 and 20 percent of total health care costs in the United States and between $300 and 450 billion in healthcare costs could be saved in the U.S. by embracing big data.

We need to redefine the concept of “work.”

In “The Future of Work,” Darrell West explains that in order to allow these innovations to thrive, we need to transition away from a society where a majority of social benefits are derived from jobs. He explains, “For much of recorded history, jobs were not the be-all, end-all of human existence. People understood identity as more closely linked to family, ethnic group, religion, neighborhood, or tribe.” The traditional conception of work, he argues, is limiting and will be harmful as we transition to a digital economy.

As new technology allows our society to be more productive with less people working, West suggests that we redefine the concept of work to include volunteering, parenting, and mentoring and that we expand leisure time.

West argues that by expanding the definition of work and encouraging the government to provide benefits, such as health care and retirement contributions, to citizens who are working in nontraditional ways, the United States can alleviate many of the growing pains associated with these technological advancements and avoid major political instability.

The government has a big role to play.

The policies the government adopts in response to these innovations will decide whether the future is a utopia or dystopia, West explains. “If this transition is handled well, it could usher in a utopian period of wide-spread peace, prosperity, and leisure time. However, poor decisions could produce dystopias that are chaotic, violent, and authoritarian in nature.”

He warns that if the government does not respond carefully, many of the fractures we see growing in our society will deepen and lead to “Trumpism on steroids” in the future. “Those who do poorly in the transition to a digital economy are inclined to lash out at the ‘establishment’ and the elites they feel have rigged the system.”

He recommends various governance solutions to the workforce disruption created by emerging AI, robotics, and automation trends. This includes paid family and parental leave, expanding trade adjustment assistance for technological disruption, citizen accounts with portable benefits, a universal basic income, the deregulation of licensing requirements, expansion of the earned income tax credit, a move towards lifetime learning and training, preschool programs, improving worker training, and more.

“Even if it is a bumpy ride, there are sensible economic and political reforms that will help people navigate the treacherous terrain ahead,” Darrell West explains.

For more, buy Darrell West’s book, “The Future of Work: Robotics, AI, and Automation.”

Author

Get daily updates from Brookings