Updated Apr 2, 2023 - Technology

AI and robots fuel new job displacement fears

Illustration of a person's arm wearing work gloves and reaching into industrial machinery, with an overlaid grid and glowing boxes framing their hand and elbow

Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

For all the hand-wringing over whether robots will replace human workers, ChatGPT and its ilk — tools known as generative AI — are shaping up to be a big employment threat too.

Why it matters: Robots tend to replace manual laborers, while artificial intelligence threatens knowledge workers — ensuring that people of all education levels can look nervously over their shoulder at the tech gunning for their paycheck.

State of play: Robots' growing sophistication has them starting to work as everything from security guards, window washers and assembly line workers to food deliverers and fry cooks.

  • They're predicted to soon prove their mettle as warehouse workers, aides to the elderly, pharmacists and more.
  • At the same time, AI software and large language models (LLMs) — including ChatGPT — may soon be able to do all manner of jobs, blending into society in ways that aren't clear yet.
  • So far, we know AI can give radiologists a run for their money, and could replace coders, accountants, paralegals, graphics designers and even journalists (eeek!).

Yes, but: For all their potential workplace benefits (like indefatigability), these technologies all have manifold flaws — from serving up misinformation to falling over on the job (hello, sidewalk robots!).

Threat level: It seems clear that automation will continue to erode certain jobs, as it has already done in the manufacturing realm.

  • The question is whether other jobs will crop up as a substitute — say, in supervising, programming or fixing the robots — and whether workers are equipped to perform them.
  • Some economists say the threat to people's jobs is real — and the big shame is that vocational training programs aren't steering workers into roles with guaranteed longevity.

What they're saying: Automation "could increase productivity while reducing wages and employment," says Daron Acemoglu, a professor and labor economist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

  • "I'm not optimistic that just the simple process of workers getting displaced from some jobs and doing other ones is going to be enough," says Acemoglu, co-author of influential research papers showing that automation has exacerbated wage inequality and that robots have usurped jobs.
  • He argues that the "scope is greater" for AI and LLMs to replace human workers — particularly given many companies' desire to trim costs through automation.

The other side: A World Economic Forum report predicts that the "number of jobs destroyed will be surpassed by the number of 'jobs of tomorrow' created."

  • By 2025, machines could displace about 85 million jobs — but create 97 million new roles "more adapted to the new division of labour between humans, machines and algorithms."
  • And research shows people tend to exaggerate the job threat from robots.

Optimists point out that ATMs didn't eliminate bank tellers, nor did washing machines make housework extinct.

  • Robot manufacturers say their products won't kill jobs — they'll just replace boring, dangerous and repetitive roles with better ones that require human judgment.
  • "We really view robots as a partner to people, not as a replacement," the co-founder and CEO of Agility Robotics, Damion Shelton, tells Axios.
  • "There are so many tasks that need to be done in a logistics environment," says Shelton, whose company is building a robotic warehouse worker. "Robots can just pick up the stuff that people don't want to do."

The big picture: An epic labor shortage is bedeviling employers, causing some to eye robots and AI as potentially cheaper than increasing wages.

  • Meanwhile, long-term trends — like demographic shifts and a mismatch between skills and workplace needs — are worrisome to economists, who fear our education and training apparatus isn't oriented toward future needs.
  • The U.S. has a shortage of skilled tradespeople, for example — carpenters, electricians, plumbers — but community colleges and other institutions aren't offering appropriate programs, Acemoglu says.

One promising solution: Amp up subsidized training programs for jobs that can't easily be done by robots or AI, and funnel potentially displaced workers into them.

  • In the U.S., "when we adopt robotics, we then lay off workers," Acemoglu said. "But if you look at what happens in Germany, they retrain workers and they create jobs for other workers."

Editor's note: This story originally published on March 29.

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