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AI Is Making Economists Rethink the Story of Automation

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Economists have traditionally believed that new technology lifts all boats. But in the case of AI, some are asking: Will some employees get left behind?

May 27, 2024

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  • Will artificial intelligence take our jobs? As AI raises new fears about a jobless future, it’s helpful to consider how economists’ understanding of technology and labor has evolved. For decades, economists were relatively optimistic, and pointed out that previous waves of technology had not led to mass unemployment. But as income inequality rose in much of the world, they began to revise their theories. Newer models of technology’s affects on the labor market account for the fact that it absolutely can displace workers and lower wages. In the long run, technology does tend to raise living standards. But how soon and how broadly? That depends on two factors: Whether technologies create new jobs for people to do and whether workers have a voice in technology’s deployment.

    Is artificial intelligence about to put vast numbers of people out of a job? Most economists would argue the answer is no: If technology permanently puts people out of work then why, after centuries of new technologies, are there still so many jobs left? New technologies, they claim, make the economy more productive and allow people to enter new fields — like the shift from agriculture to manufacturing. For that reason, economists have historically shared a general view that whatever upheaval might be caused by technological change, it is “somewhere between benign and benevolent.”

    • Walter Frick is a contributing editor at Harvard Business Reviewwhere he was formerly a senior editor and deputy editor of HBR.org. He is the founder of Nonrival, a newsletter where readers make crowdsourced predictions about economics and business. He has been an executive editor at Quartz as well as a Knight Visiting Fellow at Harvard’s Nieman Foundation for Journalism and an Assembly Fellow at Harvard’s Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society. He has also written for The Atlantic, MIT Technology Review, The Boston Globeand the BBC, among other publications.

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