There has been growing speculation that a coming wave of innovation— indeed, a tsunami—powered by artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics, will disrupt labor markets, generate mass unemployment, and shift the few jobs that remain into the insecure “gig economy.” Kneejerk “solutions” from such technology Cassandras include ideas like taxing “robots” and implementing universal basic income for everyone, employed or not. The first would slow needed productivity growth, employed or not; the second would reduce worker opportunity.
The truth is these technologies will provide a desperately needed boost to productivity and wages, but that does not mean no one will be hurt. There are always winners and losers in major economic transitions. But rather than slow down change to protect a modest number of workers at the expense of the vast majority, policymakers should focus on doing significantly more to help those who are dislocated transition easily into new jobs and new occupations. Improving policies to help workers navigate what is likely to be a more turbulent labor market is not something that should be done just out of fairness, although it is certainly fair to help workers who are either hurt by change or at risk of being hurt. But absent better labor market transition policies, there is a real risk that public and elite sentiment will turn staunchly against technological change, seeing it as fundamentally destructive and unfair. If this happens, it will undermine support for policies that are necessary to speed automation, and it could even build support for policies that “throw a wrench” into the innovation machine. Better transition policies will have the opposite effect—they will boost GDP and help employers facing worker shortages.
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