Will AI destroy the economy?

In a recent New York Times article (Tech Is Splitting the U.S. Work Force in Two), Eduardo Porter examines the impact of automation on the US labor market. His conclusion? “Robots aren’t taking ALL the jobs. They are leaving the crummy ones for humans. The Luddites, it seem, weren’t entirely wrong.”

We’ve read reports (see this and this) before that argued that frontier tech like AI, automation etc would create more jobs than they’d kill. Or reports that predicted that the race to the end had started with the emergence of this tech.

Porter’s argument though is a marked departure – he is looking specifically at the impact, of the tech revolution we are in the midst of, on low to medium skill workers. He cites several studies to argue that while jobs are being added, the ones that are available to a certain category of workers are falling in quality.

Judging by the stream of comments and responses, it is obvious that Porter has hit a nerve.

The Impact

I want to address some of  the concerns flagged in the article – and not merely because it hits close to home. There is an important question that I think we are not asking when we discuss the impact of tech automation.

Go Moment, where I am currently CEO, created Ivy, a smartconcierge that automates guest engagement for the hotel/hospitality industry.

We are currently looking at 30-40% reduction in queries hitting reception desks at hotels with Ivy. We are driving efficiency no doubt. But, and this is an important corollary, we know that Ivy frees up hotel staff to handle face-to-face guest interactions. Cornell University, in fact, corroborated this – they found an 8% increase in employee engagement per year of Ivy usage. Engagement that went up because the hotel staff didn’t need to repeatedly respond to questions about WiFi passwords, for instance. (Connect with me if you want access to the study).

Tech automation and humans
Photo by Franck V. on Unsplash

Ivy won’t, and may never, replace human interactions and interventions to satisfy guests. We are not aiming to achieve this either.

Time & Money

There is another point I want to respond to. Porter cites a Boston University study that argues that “businesses are not even reaping large rewards for the money they are spending to replace their workers with machines.” I don’t know about this; I don’t have enough information at this point to agree or dispute the claim. At face value though, I believe that automation driving profits for businesses is a long term game and that enough time hasn’t passed for us to map this cost-benefit ratio accurately. We are far too young in the tech automation industry to be labelled as job snatchers and profit eaters.

I agree though with the warnings implicit in Porter’s article. Today’s job markets are demanding different skill sets – and we are only starting out on this journey. To up-skill, to work with different classes of society, to ensure everyone rides along are challenges we need to address. Tech organizations (including Go Moment) as much as the US government have a role to play here.

Also, what do y’all think about Universal Basic Income? Is it time to talk about this alongside discussions of tech automation leaving people out in the cold?

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