After COVID-19, artificial intelligence is next challenge facing US jobseekers, lawmakers told

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Those looking for employment in the post-coronavirus job market may face additional challenges due to the emergence of artificial intelligence, according to witnesses and lawmakers who spoke at a Sept. 10 House Budget Committee hearing.

“As the economy eventually recovers, workers may find it difficult to get their jobs back as companies replace jobs with new AI-enabled automation,” said Committee Chairman John Yarmuth. “While advancements in AI technologies could create more opportunities for workers with advanced education or specialized skills, workers without these skills could see fewer opportunities in the near future.”

The Kentucky Democrat said IBM estimated more than 120 million workers in a dozen of the world’s largest economies may need to be retrained between 2019 and 2022 as a result of AI-enabled automation. He feared this would exacerbate income inequality and push some people into poverty.

The racial wealth gap could also worsen, Yarmuth said, as Black and Latino Americans are over-represented in occupations with a higher risk for automation.

Four witnesses testified at the hearing, including Susan Athey, an economics of technology professor at Stanford Graduate School of Business, and Daron Acemoglu, a professor of economics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Athey told lawmakers artificial intelligence had enormous positive potential for society. She explained new technologies could expand access to health care, educational opportunities and government services. But she said governments and universities have a crucial role to play to ensure that potential is reached.

“AI, of course, also creates challenges, contributing to an era where workers transition more frequently and require more reskilling throughout their careers,” Athey said. “We need to ensure that our institutions are prepared to meet this reality.”

In her written testimony, Athey also warned the United States could potentially lose its current role as a leader in AI innovation.

“There is no guarantee that (role) will continue without support for universities as well as high-skilled immigration,” she wrote. “…It can be important that the U.S. retains its leadership position in innovation if the U.S. hopes to be the home of the world’s leading companies in the future.”

According to Acemoglu, there is uncertainty and disagreement about what kinds of jobs AI will most likely threaten. But the professor said its current uses indicate lower-paying jobs will be most at risk.

“The COVID-19 pandemic will also contribute to this predicament as there are now more reasons for employers to look for ways of substituting machines for workers,” he said. “Recent evidence suggests that they are already doing so.”

The committee also heard from Jason Matheny, the founding director of the Center for Security and Emerging Technology, a think tank at Georgetown University that studies the security implications of new technologies. Matheny additionally serves as the commissioner for the National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence.

The director said the United States should work to retain its role as a leader in AI innovation. The United States already has several advantages, he said, including an open society that attracts talented professionals and a competitive private sector that inspires innovation.

But Matheny advised lawmakers to ensure the United States remains an attractive destination for global talent by broadening the pathways to permanent residencies for scientists and engineers.

He said research indicates a rise in high-skilled immigration ultimately increases jobs and wages for many Americans because the immigrants create new businesses or contribute to overall economic growth.

Matheny added he was confident the nation would successfully adjust to artificial intelligence.

“While AI will cause changes to the labor market, this has been true of every technology since the Industrial Revolution and this country has adapted,” he said. “I believe we will adapt to AI.”

Contact Katie King at [email protected] or follow @KatieKingCST on Twitter.

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