Intelligent Machines and Displaced Workers

The rise of so-called smart machines will challenge a fundamental feature of economic life: Most people gain their income by selling their labor. So what will happen when the labor of a large number of workers is displaced by technology or no longer commands an income adequate to provide a minimally decent standard of living?

BERKELEY – In their compelling new book The Second Machine Age, Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee document the progress in artificial intelligence that is enabling computers to exceed what they were capable of only a few years ago. The leaps in machine intelligence, along with the connection of human beings around the world in a common digital network, will enable the development of new technologies, goods and services.

The authors are optimistic about the “bounty” or economy-wide benefits of brilliant machines. But they warn that the distribution or “spread” of these benefits will be uneven.

Their fears are justified. During the last three decades, even before breakthroughs in artificial intelligence, computers have been replacing and multiplying the physical labor of human beings. Improvements in computer and communications technologies have also enabled employers to offshore many routine tasks that machines cannot directly replace.

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