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A.I.’s Threat to Jobs Prompts Question of Who Protects Workers

Tens of millions of jobs could be automated by generative artificial intelligence. The makers of new technologies are looking to the government to step in.

When Congress held a series of hearings on jobs and technological advancement in October 1955, the head of a railroad worker organization took the stand to express his fears about automation. “There is uneasiness among our workers as they assess the advance of the new technology,” said W.P. Kennedy, president of the Brotherhood of Railroad Trainmen. “Will it bring increasing unemployment rather than economic security?”

The same question could have been raised before Congress last week in its hearing on artificial intelligence. In effect, it was.

Sam Altman, chief executive of the San Francisco start-up OpenAI, testified last Tuesday before members of a Senate subcommittee, urging the government to regulate the fast-growing A.I. industry. Congressional leaders shared their worries about the threats that A.I. could pose, including the spread of misinformation and privacy violations.

One of their most emphatic concerns was job displacement: Who will assume responsibility to protect workers whose jobs might be transformed, or even eliminated, by generative A.I.?

Senator Richard Blumenthal, Democrat of Connecticut, declared that his “biggest nightmare in the long term” is the job loss that A.I. could cause, before saying to Mr. Altman, “Let me ask you what your biggest nightmare is.”

“There will be an impact on jobs,” Mr. Altman replied. “And I think it will require partnership between the industry and government, but mostly action by government.”

Mr. Altman, like so many other executives unleashing new technologies on the world, has asked the government to assume the bulk of responsibility in supporting workers through the labor market disruptions prompted by A.I. It’s not yet clear how government will rise to that task.

Generative A.I. could automate activities equivalent to 300 million full-time jobs globally, according to a recent estimate by Goldman Sachs. Already the chief executive of IBM said he expected A.I. to affect white-collar clerical staffing, eliminating the need for up to 30 percent of certain roles while creating new ones. The White House on Tuesday is hosting workers for a discussion of their experiences with automation and monitoring technologies in the workplace.

Historically, when automation has led to job loss, the economic impact has tended to be offset by the creation of new jobs. Generative artificial intelligence, according to the Goldman report, could raise America’s labor productivity growth by nearly 1.5 percentage points per year over a decade. It could increase annual global gross domestic product by 7 percent. It could give rise to previously unimagined creative occupations.

But there will be immense instability for displaced workers. Automation has been a significant driver of income inequality in America, according to a study from researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Boston University. By their estimates, 50 to 70 percent of changes in the U.S. wage structure since 1980 were due to loss of income among blue-collar and office workers because of automation.

Areas of the country where robots have been adopted most intensively, particularly manufacturing-heavy parts of the Midwest, have also seen the most precipitous declines in employment, according to research from Daron Acemoglu, an economist at M.I.T.

While makers of A.I. have tended to focus on the technology’s potential for job creation, many workers will experience painful disruption as they try to train for and find new roles that pay well and are fulfilling.

“We’ve never been in a period where the scope of automation is so wide potentially,” said Harry Holzer, an economist at Georgetown. “Historically if your job gets automated, you find something new. With A.I. the thing that’s kind of scary is it could simply grow and take over more tasks. It’s a moving target.”

Workers in administrative and clerical support may have particular cause for concern about generative A.I., according to the Goldman research. And many of them are already expressing anxieties.

“It’s definitely scary,” said Justin Felt, 41, a customer service worker in Pittsburgh, who has worked for Verizon Fios for nearly 12 years. He feels that employers have not been entirely upfront with their workers about the ways they are incorporating generative A.I. into customer support roles, he said. “It’s definitely taking our work.”

These technologies are flooding into workplaces at a rapid clip. BuzzFeed just introduced a chatbot that offers up recipe recommendations, McKinsey is helping clients use A.I. to fix technological bugs and the accounting firm KPMG is using ChatGPT to generate code. So some economists have begun putting forward proposals to protect the workers most likely to be affected.

Workers could benefit, for example, from paid leave policies that allow them to take time away from their jobs to develop new skills. Germany already has a similar program, in which workers in most German states can take at least five paid days a year for educational courses, an initiative the labor minister recently said he planned to expand.

Another possibility is a displacement tax, levied on employers when a worker’s job is automated but the person is not retrained, which could make businesses more inclined to retrain workers. The government could also offer A.I. companies financial incentives to create products designed to augment what workers do, rather than replace them — for example, A.I. that provides TV writers with research but doesn’t draft scripts, which are likely to be of low quality.

“If the government sets the agenda in developing technologies that are more complementary to humans, that would be very important,” Mr. Acemoglu said. “Industry is looking to the government for leadership.”

The government’s previous efforts to support workers through periods of job displacement have had mixed results. A study of Trade Adjustment Assistance, a U.S. government program that provides financial assistance and training for workers who lose jobs because of trade, found that manufacturing employees who temporarily dropped out of the work force to participate in the program in the early 2000s still hadn’t caught up on earnings several years later compared with workers who lost jobs but didn’t qualify for T.A.A. support.

Many economists say employers could also play a role in helping displaced workers.

“Business always looks to government to deal with job loss,” said Simon Johnson, a professor at M.I.T. and a co-author with Mr. Acemoglu of the book “Power and Progress.” “But Microsoft and Alphabet — they are in the driver’s seat, in regards to where they choose to put their technological resources.”

Workers could benefit, for example, from employer apprenticeships and retraining programs. The accounting giant PwC recently announced a $1 billion investment in generative A.I., which includes efforts to train its 65,000 workers on how to use A.I. What spurred the initiative was the chief executive’s trip to the World Economic Forum’s gathering in Davos, Switzerland, where he heard constant discussion of generative A.I.

“A number of us walking out of that room knew something had changed,” recalled Joe Atkinson, the company’s chief products and technology officer.

PwC’s workers have expressed fears about displacement, according to Mr. Atkinson, especially as their company explores automating roles with generative A.I. Mr. Atkinson stressed, though, that PwC planned to retrain people with new technical skills so their work would change but their jobs wouldn’t be eliminated.

Some tech companies are offering employees courses in cloud computing, cybersecurity and generative A.I. Among them is IBM, which also has an apprenticeship program that trains workers, including those without four-year degrees, for high-paying roles in fields like software development and data science. The company C3 AI offers its 1,000 employees bonuses of $250 to $1,500 for becoming certified in technological subjects including A.I. and cloud computing. KPMG is working to train every one of its employees to use generative A.I.

Community colleges are intensifying their focus on A.I., too. Miami Dade College has received over $15 million in grants for its technology programs, with some of the money used to open two centers focused on preparing students for careers in A.I. Houston Community College recently announced a bachelor’s degree in A.I. and robotics, and Southwest Tennessee Community College is working to create an associate degree. The American Association of Community Colleges launched an A.I. incubator network focused on helping faculty teach about A.I. and colleges create A.I. degrees.

“As Wayne Gretzky once said when asked about his success, ‘I skate to where the puck is going,’” said Dennis Natali, a professor at Pikes Peak State College in Colorado, which released a plan this year to roll out A.I. certificates. “Our college constantly assesses the work force landscape and prepares to support displaced workers.”

As colleges and businesses scramble to retrain workers, some experts are optimistic about this technological transition. They note that throughout history people have feared technological advancement but often ended up benefiting from it, going back to the Luddites, weavers who protested the mechanization of the textile industry.

But that doesn’t mean the transition period will unfold smoothly. Michael Chui, an A.I. expert at McKinsey, pointed out that even the Luddites saw their income stagnate for decades.

“Anyone who loses their job involuntarily — it’s a difficult time,” he said. “In some ways the Luddites weren’t wrong about the risk.”

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