Intelligent Machines and Displaced Workers

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.

As a result of both technological displacement and technology-enabled globalization, the share of employment in occupations in the middle of the skill distribution has declined rapidly in both the United States and Europe. Demand for workers who perform routine tasks has been falling at an accelerating pace in recent decades, destroying well -paid middle-skill jobs in both manufacturing and clerical occupations.