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Special Edition Magazine, Spring 2020: Beyond the Techlash

How the Other Half Automates

Economists have long worried that many of the cutting-edge technologies created in advanced economies will not necessarily benefit developing and emerging economies, owing to vast differences in capital intensity and labor-market conditions. This disconnect could grow even more pronounced in the age of artificial intelligence.

CAMBRIDGE – Although experts disagree about whether artificial intelligence will reach human-like levels anytime soon, few doubt that the field will make major advances in the coming years. In the West, how AI will affect workers is already fueling growing concern, with some warning that millions of jobs will be automated. Yet even if such predictions turn out to be alarmist (or industry hype), increased awareness of AI and its implications suggests that advanced economies will be better prepared for whatever is coming.

But what about the billions of workers in the developing world? Even though the threats and opportunities associated with AI are equally significant in these economies, much less has been written about them.

Just a few companies in advanced economies are shaping the current direction of AI development, with the American tech giants, together with Alibaba and Baidu in China, accounting for the bulk of investment in research and development. Owing to these firms’ business models, much of the research into AI is geared toward automating tasks and services based on pattern and image recognition, prediction, and natural language processing. Where these companies lead, others will follow.

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