Foreign Policy Magazine

LEARNING TO WORK WITH ROBOTS

AI WILL CHANGE EVERYTHING. WORKERS MUST ADAPT—OR ELSE.

1 IN JANUARY, AMAZON OPENED AMAZON GO, a high-tech, cashierless convenience store in Seattle. There are no checkout lines and few employees. The only requirement to shop is downloading an app. Customers just walk in, load up their bags, and go. There’s no need to even scan purchases; cameras positioned overhead take note of items in customers’ carts and add them to a virtual bill. Amazon Go is both an interesting novelty—and a profound challenge to the livelihoods of the more than 3.5 million Americans who work as cashiers.

Rumors of a coming wave of similar stores and robot-run factories have provoked apocalyptic predictions of mass unemployment among pundits and politicians. Doomsday headlines such as “You Will Lose Your Job to a Robot—and Sooner Than You Think” reflect fears that artificial intelligence and robots will replace human labor on a mass scale and computers will become so intelligent that people will simply be unable to compete.

But such a gloomy outlook is unwarranted. Recent analyses from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) and the McKinsey Global Institute paint a very different picture. Yes, these reports conclude, automation will displace some people from some jobs, but there will still be work for the foreseeable future. The total number of jobs may not even decline significantly, especially in more advanced economies.

Technological progress will create both winners and losers. Some workers will lose their jobs. A large share of workers will find their work changed, sometimes dramatically; others will discover that their skills are outdated. The cost of this adjustment will not be distributed equally across countries, communities, occupations, or skill levels. The transition will be especially painful for the least educated. Job growth will continue, and incomes will rise for those at the top, but wages for those at the bottom will suffer as many occupations are automated and the demand for lower-skilled routine labor, such as that of cashiers and fast-food workers, gradually decreases.

No country will be immune from the upheaval. The Economist Intelligence Unit recently released what it called the Automation Readiness Index. The key finding: Not

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