Artificial intelligence threat to economy should galvanize Congress

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The fear, held by many Americans, that immigrants will take their jobs and the fear of a Skynet-like robotic uprising may seem to be very different, but they have at least one thing in common: they may well miss the mark.

Fifteen years ago, the intersection of the two may have been material for sketch comedy: “the robots are takin’ our jahbs” – but nowadays the possibility is all too real. The speed of artificial intelligence and robotics research has been constantly increasing, and of late has reached a breakneck pace. What was purely in the realm of speculation a decade ago may be achieved by the end of the next.

Already, robots powered by cutting-edge AI have learned to recognize human faces, detect human emotions and even strategize and lie. Most impressively, robots have even begun to be creative, to a limited degree at least. As a result of all of this innovation and potential, the range of jobs which robots are now becoming eligible to take has increased vastly.

Historically, the only industry robotics affected was manufacturing, where specialized robots have replaced assembly line workers. Now, however, fields from driving to clerical work to medicine and even teaching lie beneath the shadow of artificial intelligence. The most imminent threat is almost certainly to driving-based jobs, since autonomous vehicles are nearly ready: Google expects its autonomous cars to be ready for consumers by 2020. Once companies like Uber can use self-driving cars, taxi-driver jobs may well go extinct.

Similarly, limousine companies could use self-driving limos, and self-driving truck startup Otto demonstrated a successful autonomous truck shipment last year. In total, self-driving vehicles could endanger or eliminate nearly 4 million American jobs. Almost as threatened as driving jobs, however, are clerical jobs.

Artificial intelligence is already far superior to humans when it comes to combing through sets of data to find patterns, but soon AI will perform as well or better than humans on smaller data sets too. Moreover, AI is well-suited to monotonous jobs like filing records, data entry and so on. Even basic management skills, such as allocating tasks and generating schedules, are within the grasp of AI in the near future.

In all, within the next 40 years or so, robots may take over around half of currently existing jobs, according to a January 2017 report from the McKinsey Global Institute.

Obviously, many of these jobs are low-skilled labor, such as construction or food preparation. Still, according to the report such jobs make up 51 percent of economic activities, accounting for almost $2.7 trillion in wages. It’s clear that, if AI pans out as experts believe it will, the United States, and likely the rest of the world, will have a major crisis on its hands. As MIT economist Andrew McAfee noted, “if current trends continue, people are going to rise up well before the machines do.” The only way we as a society can navigate safely through these perilous waters is if our government begins thinking and legislating not just for the present, but for what is likely to emerge in the future.

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