We Read It So You Didn't Have To! Brookings Report: Automation and Artificial Intelligence

"How machines are affecting people and places"


The phrase “Artificial Intelligence” (AI) often evokes feelings of intimidation, fear, and opposition. We know that this technological advancement will alter the workforce in many ways; however, the details of these changes are often lost in the inscrutable language surrounding the topic. We hope to provide you with a better understanding of the inevitable transformations that AI will bring to American people and communities.

Brookings’ Senior Fellow and Metropolitan Policy Program Director Mark Muro and Senior Research Assistants Robert Maxim and Jacob Whiton write on the impact of automation and artificial intelligence. Their report breaks down past effects and future trends of this technological revolution and provides suggestions for policymakers to best handle these turbulent changes.

What is Automation?

Automation seeks to replace human work with machines in order to increase the quality and quantity of output while reducing costs.

Understanding the Role of Automation as it Coexists with Humans

Leading experts have defined general rules that dictate the relationships between machines and their human counterparts. The six basic guidelines are outlined below.

1) Automation as a substitute for human labor

     a) Machines can perform human tasks with greater precision and speed than humans, and at a lower cost. There are limitations to what skills they can replicate, however.

2) Machines substitute tasks, not entire jobs

     a) Jobs are a compilation of tasks, therefore it is highly unlikely that machines will replace all the tasks in one specific occupation.

3) Automation is a complement to labor

     a) The jobs that cannot be replaced are enhanced by automation, and thus become more valuable.

4) Increased demand means more jobs

     a) Automation creates cheaper, higher quality goods, thereby increasing demand for these products. This can balance the harmful economic effects of potential job losses.

5) Human innovation is an invaluable resource

     a) Machines replace routine and time-consuming tasks, which in turn allows humans to spend more time and energy creating new tasks and products.

6) Projected outcomes may fall short

     a) Adopting new technology is a transitional process- technological potential does not always match the real outcome.  

With these basic principles in mind, what are the expected impacts of automation in the workplace?

Jobs most greatly affected:

While no occupation will be entirely unaffected by AI and technological changes, certain “high risk” jobs comprise of over 70% potentially 'automatable' tasks. Vulnerable jobs include office administration, construction, maintenance transportation, food preparation, and agricultural activities.

Geographic regions most greatly affected:

Though automation will occur everywhere, the degree of impact depends on a particular community’s local industry, tasks, and range of skill sets. As of now, smaller rural communities are more exposed to automation risk based on these industry credentials compared to metropolitan areas.

Demographics most greatly affected:

The stark divide within the labor market along factors such as education level, gender, age, and racial-ethnic identity ensure that certain demographics are more threatened by automation than others. Because of overrepresentation in occupations with higher risk of automation, men, youth, less educated workers, and racial-ethnic minorities are most likely to be directly impacted by these technological transformations.

Automation continues to pose a daunting threat to many workers and communities- how can we adapt to positively embrace these inevitable technological changes?

Five Policy Keys to Navigate Evolving Labor Markets  

1) Embrace technological changes by allowing such transformations to fuel economic growth. A full-employment economy (both national and regionally) is ultimately the desired outcome.

2) Foster a culture of constant learning by investing in re-skilling workers, making skill development more financially accessible, expanding education, accelerated learning, and certification opportunities, and promoting uniquely human qualities in the workplace.

3) Facilitate a smooth adjustment to this new period of automation by creating Universal Adjustment Benefits to support displaced workers, as well as subsidizing employment to maximize the hiring of human workers.

4) Reduce hardships for struggling workers by reforming and expanding income support as well as reducing financial volatility for workers in low-paying jobs.

5) Support heavily impacted local communities by establishing future-proof regional economies as well as expanding support programs for community adjustment.


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