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How a tech skeptic decided AI could benefit the middle class| GuyWhoKnowsThings


David Autor seems an unlikely AI optimist. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology labor economist is best known for his in-depth studies showing how much technology and trade have eroded the incomes of millions of American workers over the years.

But Autor now argues that the new wave of technology – generative artificial intelligence, which can produce hyper-realistic images and videos and convincingly imitate human voices and writing – could reverse that trend.

“AI, if used well, can help restore the middle-class, middle-skilled heart of the American labor market that has been hollowed out by automation and globalization,” Autor wrote in a Document from the National Bureau of Economic Research published in February.

Mr. Author's stance on AI seems like a surprising conversion for a longtime expert on the downfalls of the tech workforce. But he said the facts had changed and so had his way of thinking. Modern AI, Autor said, is a fundamentally different technology, opening the door to new possibilities. It can, he continued, change the economics of high-stakes decision-making so that more people can take on some of the work that is now the province of elite, expensive experts like doctors, lawyers, software engineers and university professors. And if more people, including those without college degrees, can do more valuable jobs, they should be paid more, lifting more workers into the middle class.

The researcher, whom The Economist once called “the academic voice of the American worker,” began his career as a software developer and leader of a computer education nonprofit before turning to economics and spending decades examining the impact of technology and technology. globalization on workers and wages.

Mr. Author, 59 years old, was the author of a influential study in 2003 which concluded that 60 percent of the change in demand favoring college-educated workers over the previous three decades was attributable to computerization. Later research examined the role of Technology in wage polarization. and on bias employment growth toward low-wage service jobs.

Other economists see Autor's latest treatise as a stimulating, if speculative, thought exercise.

“I'm a big fan of David Autor's work, but his hypothesis is just one possible scenario,” said Laura Tyson, a professor at the Haas School of Business at the University of California, Berkeley, who is a former president of the Economic Studies Council. Advisors during the Clinton administration. “There is broad agreement that AI will produce a productivity benefit, but how that translates into wages and employment is very uncertain.”

This uncertainty usually turns towards pessimism. Not only Silicon Valley pessimists but also mainstream economists predict that many jobs, from call center workers to software developers, are at risk. In a report last yearGoldman Sachs concluded that generative AI could automate activities equivalent to 300 million full-time jobs worldwide.

In Mr. Author's latest report, which was also published in the research journal November Magazine, rules out the likelihood that AI can completely replace human judgment. And it believes that demand for healthcare, software, education and legal advice is almost limitless, so cost-cutting should expand those fields as its products and services become more affordable.

“It's not a forecast but an argument” for an alternative path forward, very different from the jobs apocalypse envisioned by Elon Musk, among others, he said.

Until now, Autor said, computers were programmed to follow rules. They got relentlessly better, faster and cheaper. And routine tasks, in an office or a factory, could be reduced to a series of step-by-step rules that have become increasingly automated. Those jobs were typically performed by workers with average skills and without four-year college degrees.

AI, by contrast, is trained on vast amounts of data: virtually all the text, images, and software code on the Internet. When asked, powerful AI chatbots like Open AI's ChatGPT and Google's Gemini can generate reports and computer programs or answer questions.

“He doesn't know any rules,” Mr. Author said. “Learn by absorbing many examples. It is completely different from what we had in computing.”

An AI assistant, he said, equipped with a store of learned examples can offer “guidance” (in healthcare, did you consider this diagnosis?) and “guardrails” (don't prescribe these two drugs together).

In this way, Autor said, AI does not end employment, but rather becomes a “complementary technology for the worker,” allowing someone without as much experience to perform more valuable work.

Early studies on generative AI in the workplace point to its potential. A research project conducted by two MIT graduate students, whom Mr. Author advised, assigned tasks such as writing brief reports or press releases to professionals in the office. AI increased the productivity of all workers, but the least trained and experienced benefited the most. Subsequent investigations with call center workers and computer programmer found a similar pattern.

But even if AI offers the biggest productivity gains to less experienced workers, that doesn't mean they will reap the rewards of higher salaries and better career paths. That will also depend on corporate behavior, workers' bargaining power, and political incentives.

Daron Acemoglu, an MIT economist and occasional Autor contributor, said his colleague's view is a possible path forward, but not necessarily the most likely. History, Acemoglu said, is not on the side of the optimists.

“We've been here before with other digital technologies and that hasn't happened,” he said.

Mr. Author recognizes the challenges. “But I do think there is value in imagining a positive outcome, encouraging debate and preparing for a better future,” he said. “This technology is a tool and how we decide to use it is up to us.”


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