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Agents of Automation

Neglected in today's debates about automation and the future of work is any consideration of principal-agent dynamics in the settings most open to technological interventions. Although a crude economic calculus almost always points toward more and more automation, the real world is never as simple as that.

DUBAI – Studies examining how artificial intelligence (AI) and automation will shape our lives – and especially our jobs – in the years and decades ahead have been piling up. The consensus is that the impact will be mixed: many jobs will be eliminated, many will be transformed, and many new ones will be created. But agreement on how many will be eliminated, transformed, or created remains elusive.

For example, in 2018, a World Economic Forum report projected that between that year and 2022, “75 million jobs may be displaced by a shift in the division of labor between humans and machines, while 133 million new roles may emerge that are more adapted to the new division of labor between humans, machines, and algorithms.” Not surprisingly, the International Federation of Robotics also concludes that the adoption of robots in sectors like auto manufacturing will result in net employment growth.

Likewise, studies by the McKinsey Global Institute and IZA, a German think tank, find that 14% and 35% of jobs, respectively, are vulnerable to automation. But a now-famous study by Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael Osborne of the University of Oxford estimates that almost half of US employment is at risk.

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