They promised us jetpacks. But if they arrive in the future, many of us may not be able to afford them.
Jason Furman of the US Council of Economic Advisors gave a speech last week (pdf, p. 5) highlighting the potential for automation to displace today’s jobs, even as it creates new ones. No one knows exactly how many jobs automation will claim. Oxford University researchers guess 47% of U.S. jobs (pdf) are at risk. The OECD, an international economic group, estimates only 9% of jobs are under threat in member nations.
Whatever the number, the effects will fall disproportionately on those with low incomes, according to Furman. The Council of Economic Advisers ranked the occupations in the Oxford University study to see where automation was likely to strike first. They found those with the least skills and wages were by far the most vulnerable: 83% of jobs paying less than $20 per hour were considered likely to be automated.
Furman pointed out that automation, like most technologies, will create more jobs over time and, if the history of technology holds true, improve overall wealth. But it is unlikely to be distributed evenly. Even if the Council’s estimates are off, automation will drive more income inequality, causing acute disruption among the poor and middle class.
For professions paying more than $40 per hour, it may only be a matter of time before the machines come for them as well. Lawyers and paralegals already compete with software that can sift through trial documents. Computer vision algorithms routinely outperform doctors in detecting and diagnosing some cancers. Journalists also face algorithms that can generate thousands of articles per day about sports and financial news.
New wealth and occupations are certain to emerge from this next wave of automation. It’s not clear if those opportunities will come fast enough, or pay enough, for most people who lose their jobs to benefit.