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The Future of Work in the AI Era

Techno-utopians and techno-pessimists both seem to agree that artificial intelligence will yield unprecedented productivity gains. If they are right, there is no policy response strong enough to protect people from the alienation and other pathologies associated with sudden, widespread job displacement.

CHICAGO – Recent discussions about the implications of artificial intelligence for employment have veered between the poles of apocalypse and utopia. Under the apocalyptic scenario, AI will displace a large share of all jobs, vastly exacerbating inequality as a small capital-owning class acquires productive surpluses previously shared with human laborers.

The utopian scenario, curiously, is the same, except that the very rich will be forced to share their winnings with everyone else through a universal basic income or similar transfer program. Everyone will enjoy plenty and freedom, finally achieving Marx’s vision of communism, where it is “possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticize after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, herdsman, or critic.”

The common assumption in both scenarios is that AI will vastly increase productivity, forcing even highly paid doctors, software programmers, and airline pilots to go on the dole alongside truck drivers and cashiers. AI will not only code better than an experienced programmer; it will also be better at performing any other tasks that that coder might be retrained to do. But if all this is true, then AI will generate unheard-of wealth that even the most extraordinary sybarite would have trouble exhausting.