All About America

Robots Stole Blue Collar Jobs, Now AI Is Coming for White Collar Workers

January 02, 2020 04:11 PM

Robots might be taking over the blue-collar jobs of less-educated Americans, but artificial intelligence (AI) is poised to shake up college-educated employees in higher paying jobs, leaving no worker immune to the impact of technology on the American workforce.

“[AI] will be used more extensively by the most high-paid and many of the best-educated workers,” says Mark Muro, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institute. “Automation has usually tended to affect lower-pay workers. AI is going to be highly prevalent in the middle class, white collar office. It was surprising to see how clearly that jumped out.”

AI is generally regarded as programming computers to do things that normally require human intelligence — tasks such as planning, learning, reasoning, and problem-solving. Muro and his colleagues analyzed which jobs will be most highly affected by artificial intelligence going forward. What they learned is that virtually every occupation will feel AI’s effects.

But whether AI will displace more highly skilled workers in the same way robots have replaced lower-skilled workers is hard to predict. AI might create entirely new jobs and occupations for humans.

“We can't really say at this point whether [AI] will lead to the destruction of work or the support of work. Both things could happen,” Muro says. “It may not mean anything disturbing. It may mean that those workers will have access to very powerful new technologies. But it may mean there will be a lot more flux in those higher paid occupations.”

Jobs performed by people with a 4-year college degree, which were once largely immune from automation, could be the hardest hit. These include market research analysts, sales managers, programmers, management analysts, and engineers. Positions that are “heavily involved in pattern-oriented or predictive work” are expected to be “especially susceptible to the data-driven inroads of AI,” according to the analysis.

“Everyone is going to be affected in some way by automation,” Muro says. “So I think this opens up the possibility of all groups in the society needing to recognize that they're in this together… automation is going to be an important factor in the next 20 years, so we’d better work together to come up with better solutions or responses.”

In this Nov. 9, 2018, photo, a robot scans shelves to provide real-time inventory data at a Walmart Supercenter in Houston.

Muro’s analysis finds that workers in manufacturing, often less educated workers, will also be impacted by AI, but to a lesser extent than the more highly educated. 

Of course, this is not the first time American workers have been impacted or potentially impacted by technology.

“There have been technologies that have been implemented that didn't lead to the wide-scale job losses,” says William M. Rodgers III, professor of public policy and chief economist at the Heldrich Center for Workforce Development at Rutgers University, “but that doesn't mean we don't have to have a public policy response.”

Rodgers co-authored a report on how robots are affecting workers and their wages. 

“We do have to ensure that we have safety nets or approaches that can help cushion the blow for people who do get displaced by technology,” Rodgers says.

The challenge, as Muro sees it, is to determine how humans can add value.

“What are the human traits that are resilient and will be durable in the face of new technologies,” Muro says, “and then how do we help people retrain, seek new work that they need to adjust to or, if their careers break down from this, how do we provide a better social safety net?”

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