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Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

AI and automation are receiving a boost during the coronavirus pandemic that in the short term is creating a new hybrid workforce rather than destroying jobs outright.

The big picture: While the forces of automation and AI will eliminate some jobs and create some new ones, the vast majority will remain but be dramatically changed. The challenge for employers will be ensuring workforces are ready for the effects of technology.

  • "We've seen more changes in how we work over the past 20 weeks than we have over the past 20 years," says Erik Brynjolfsson, the director of the Digital Economy Lab at the Stanford Institute for Human-Centered AI (HAI).

State of play: The early weeks of the pandemic featured a rush of reports of companies pushing automation and AI, in part to replace humans who couldn't come into the workplace for fear of COVID-19. But the robot jobpocalypse isn't quite here yet, notes Brynjolfsson .

  • In a report for MIT Sloan Management Review, Brynjolfsson and his colleague Matt Beane found that while companies are investing in robotics and automation, it takes more time than you might expect for employers to find the right uses for new technology, especially in the midst of an economic downturn when firms are "focused on keeping the lights on," says Brynjolfsson.
  • Right now companies are in the early stages of what Brynjolfsson refers to as the "productivity J-curve," often seen when radical new technologies are introduced into the workplace.
  • Rather than instantly improving productivity, there's often an initial dip as companies spend time and money to figure out how to get the most out of new tools.

What they're saying: "The reason I don't foresee mass unemployment is that we are still far from artificial general intelligence," says Brynjolfsson. "Machines just can't do soup to nuts what humans can do."

Yes, but: Just because the robots aren't taking all of our jobs doesn't mean that automation and AI won't reshape how we work, even in the short term.

  • At a summit HAI held on AI and the future of work earlier this week, McKinsey Global Institute chairman James Manyika estimated that while only about 10% of jobs are at risk of being lost because of automation and AI, 60% of all jobs fall into a category where at least one-third of tasks could be automated.
  • "More jobs will be changed than lost," said Manyika. "But this comes with massive polarization and a general sense that work is becoming more fragile."

Context: That polarization can be seen in the fact that roughly two-thirds of the job growth since the 2008 recession has been concentrated in one-third of U.S. counties, Manyika noted, while the rest of the country has experienced either muted growth or declines.

  • As my Axios colleague Ina Fried reported yesterday, tech companies are pulling away during the pandemic, with Apple reporting its best September quarter ever in the midst of general economic carnage.

But even the most successful tech companies haven't yet shown that they can't yet replace human workers with robots or AI on a wide scale.

  • Amazon has invested heavily in automation in its warehouses, yet this week the company reported it now employs more than 1 million people, with 400,000 jobs added this year alone, mostly in warehouses and delivery centers.

The catch: Many of those jobs fall into the fragile class Manyika described, and as robotics technology improves over time, more and more tasks that can only be done by humans are at risk of being automated away.

  • A recent report from the World Economic Forum projected that by 2025, the time spent on tasks by humans and machines will be equal, and that 43% of businesses surveyed said they plan to reduce their workforce due to technology integration.

What's next: Brynjolfsson doesn't want to slow down the pace of technological change, but he argues changes to the tax code — which currently taxes companies more for employing human workers than capital investments in automation — would help cushion the shift.

  • He also argues the U.S. needs to invest far more in training workers — including on the job — so they can get the most out of technology.

The bottom line: An essential fact about robots and AI is this: they're always improving. If workers don't learn new skills, says Brynjolfsson, "they'll face some tough times ahead."

Go deeper

Axios roundtable on the future of the workforce

On Wednesday November 18 Axios' Sara Fischer and Dan Primack hosted the second in a series of three virtual roundtables, featuring policymakers, academics, and nonprofit leaders to discuss the workforce recovery after COVID-19 and the importance of digital tools, skills, and access.

Markle Foundation Chief Operating Officer Beth F. Cobert and Google.org Head of Impact and Insights Andrew Dunckelman highlighted how the pandemic has accelerated a shift to online businesses, citing research from the National Skills Coalition that reported that 1 in 3 American workers has limited or no digital skills. Roundtable participants discussed how to approach that critical digital skills gap and more broadly, the pandemic's affect on businesses and workers.

Sonja Diaz, Founding Director at UCLA's Latino Policy & Politics Initiative discussed how to create policy solutions for the businesses most acutely affected by the pandemic.

  • "A lot of the gains made by minority businesses have been outside of the regulatory sphere, meaning that they've been able to do this because of personal connections, community connections. They're under-financed and under-banked. So if we think about policy interventions, we know that tailoring and centering them on the needs of women and minority owned businesses is going to be a return on investment."

Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-IL) highlighted how the digital economy is a critical part of COVID-19 economic recovery.

  • "I think what the Americans are waiting for right now is the opportunity to have something really big and bold that speaks to them about their future and their jobs. And I certainly think that the digital economy can be built right into that."

Traci Scott, Workforce Vice President at the National Urban League stressed the importance of meeting users where they're at in terms of digital skills training.

  • "We would have virtual job fairs, but what we found is that people didn't know how to work Zoom. They had never navigated through Zoom. So then we realized that we had to go even deeper in our training just to train individuals on just how to use something that we all take advantage of."

Trevor Parham, Founder and Director of Oakstop and the Oakland Black Business Fund discussed how to see digital tools as something beyond just economic exchange.

  • "We need to focus not just on tools that are going to allow people to create economic transactions, but on whether it is technology or other tools or infrastructure that is going to allow us to restore our ability to be a real human community."

Read the recap of our first roundtable event here.

Thank you Google for sponsoring this event.

Biden plans to ask public to wear masks for first 100 days in office

Joe Biden. Photo: Mark Makela/Gettu Images

President-elect Joe Biden told CNN on Thursday that he plans to ask the American public to wear face masks for the first 100 days of his presidency.

The big picture: Biden also stated he has asked NIAID director Anthony Fauci to stay on in his current role, serve as a chief medical adviser and be part of his COVID-19 response team when he takes office early next year.

What COVID-19 vaccine trials still need to do

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

COVID-19 vaccines are being developed at record speed, but some experts fear the accelerated regulatory process could interfere with ongoing research about the vaccines.

Why it matters: Even after the first COVID-19 vaccines are deployed, scientific questions will remain about how they are working and how to improve them.