Nov 20, 2019 - Technology

AI is coming for white-collar workers

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Data: The Brookings Institution; Chart: Axios Visuals

While robots upend blue-collar factory work and trucking in the middle of the country, AI and machine learning are poised to deeply alter white-collar jobs in superstar coastal cities.

Why it matters: No one is immune to the shockwave of automation in the workplace.

"AI will be as central to the white-collar office environment as robotics has been to the production economy," said Mark Muro, senior fellow and policy director of the Metropolitan Policy Program at the Brookings Institution. "They'll fundamentally change what work is and what humans do. And no one gets a free pass."

What's happening: A new analysis released Wednesday by Brookings overlaid the keywords in AI-related patents with job descriptions to get a more detailed understanding of which jobs are most likely to be affected by AI — and where they are.

  • Industries at risk: Carmakers and clothing makers are using AI for advanced manufacturing on production lines — that’s far more complex that the routine, task-oriented automation that most robots power. Digital services like software publishing and computer system design also show high exposure, along with professional services like purchasing, and agricultural work.
  • Cities highly exposed to AI disruption: Established or emerging tech hubs like San Jose, Seattle, Salt Lake City, Boulder and Huntsville. Also agricultural centers like Madera and Salinas in California, and logistics and advanced manufacturing hubs like Greenville, South Carolina, Detroit and Louisville.

The big picture: Much of the research assessing the workforce impact of these new technologies — robotics, AI and machine learning — lumps them all together under the bucket of automation.

  • The dominant prediction has been that automation will most impact "routine" functions like factory-floor and cashier work.

But when looking specifically at AI — which has the ability to interpret voice commands, recognize images, and make predictions and decisions — jobs ranging from radiologists to legal professionals and marketing specialists could find themselves with drastically diminished roles.

"There are a lot of high-skilled tasks that will be affected by machine learning, and that's going to be very disruptive," says Erik Brynjolfsson, director of MIT's Initiative on the Digital Economy.

  • Those with bachelor's degrees will be much more exposed to AI than their less-educated counterparts, countering the longtime recommendation that more education will insulate workers from this disruption.
  • Men and workers who are white and Asian American have more exposure than other demographics due to their overrepresentation in technical, engineering and professional roles.
  • However, the highest-paid, most elite workers like CEOs appear to be more protected.

Between the lines: States like Michigan, Indiana, Illinois and Nebraska may be hit from both ends of the spectrum. Blue-collar workers there could be displaced by robots while white-collar workers are hit by AI and machine learning.

The bottom line: White-collar work is poised to face the same turmoil as jobs on the lower end of the wage spectrum. But the higher-earning workers — who are likely to have more education and more diverse skills, as well as bigger bank accounts — will be far better prepared to navigate the tectonic shifts, Muro says.

Go deeper: The threat to the $100,000-a-year worker

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