One of the biggest points of concern in our economy — and a concern that the current 2020 Democratic candidates have attempted to address — is the prospect of automation of jobs in the United States. Based on a recent study by the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, the jobs whose numbers have declined the most in recent years are all in careers threatened by automation— the number of assemblers has decreased by 11.8%; inspectors/testers/sorters/etc. are projected to decrease further by 17.6%; and word processors/typists will be hit the hardest, at a projected 33.8% decrease.
Such harrowing job prospects, especially for those working in such fields, are not exactly comforting. And when you look at the jobs themselves that are taking the hardest hits, the culprit becomes quite clear — automation and robotics. Assembler jobs have now been replaced with robotic arms that can put together cars, toothbrushes, and everything in between far faster (and cheaper) than a human. Inspectors and typists are both in the same boat — with the advent of word processing, dictation technology, and computerized quality-assurance machines, the people who occupied these jobs often find themselves replaced with robotic versions of themselves, which are far cheaper and easier to operate at a consistent level.
And now there’s a new enemy on the horizon — artificial intelligence, or AI. Although the technology isn’t at Terminator-Hal-9000 levels (yet), AI promises to be the next stage of automation that could result in a radical shift in the role of humans in the economy as a whole. Functioning off of inference, artificial intelligence utilizes complex algorithms to draw conclusions from huge sets of examples — conclusions that can be used to predict human behavior or pick bad potatoes out of a pile. The biggest users of AI are, unsurprisingly, tech companies — companies like Google, Facebook, and Twitter utilize AI to better predict the behavior of their users and display ads and content accordingly. Netflix recommendations utilize the same technology to suggest Avengers: Endgame after Infinity War or Mean Girls 2 after Mean Girls 1. But AI can be used for other purposes as well — purposes that have the potential to supplant jobs that we never thought possible. Even now, supercomputers like IBM’s Watson are looking toward using AI to help doctors make diagnoses, and assist radiologists in reading X-rays and MRI scans.
AI has the potential to transform jobs we thought untouchable by automation, jobs that have stayed constant for hundreds of years — and it’s an issue to keep an eye on in the upcoming debates and campaigns: the economy has always been an issue of contention, and there is evidence to support that it’ll undergo a radical transformation in the near future.