AI Might Just Save the Middle Class

If all the tasks that made ancient Greece tick were automated — from churning out chariots to crafting ceramic vases — it wouldn’t transform the place into Singapore. The Mediterranean civilization would still be that of a few thousand years ago, not a modern Southeast Asian nation whose first prime minister rated the advent of the air conditioner as an epochal event.

Automation has, in many instances, replaced human labor, but tends not to bring forward new inventions. Much as it has benefited society and driven economic growth overall, the replication of basic human labor by machine has, nonetheless, wrought social and political dislocation. The Luddites who violently opposed technological change in the early 1800s weren’t the end of the pushback. White-collar employees without college degrees have been under fire in more contemporary times, thanks to the computerization of clerical duties. The loss of factory jobs to China, where tasks could be performed cheaper and at great scale, eroded working-class communities in key parts of the US and laid the conditions for the rise of Donald Trump.

Artificial intelligence, if we are fortunate, will work the other way, according to David Autor, a professor of economics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He shot to fame nearly a decade ago for his work on the unemployment in electorally pivotal states that followed a surge in imports from China. Autor believes that AI will augment the tacit knowledge some workers already possess and enable them to perform roles that were once the domain of highly paid professionals. It may even help the world cope with the labor scarcity that results from a pronounced decline in birthrates.

When Autor talks about big shifts in human capital, it's worth listening. “AI used well can assist with restoring the middle-skill, middle-class heart of the US labor market that has been hollowed out by automation and globalization,” he wrote in a recent NOEMA magazine article and a paper published by the National Bureau of Economic Research. “While one may worry that AI will simply render expertise redundant and experts superfluous, history and economic logic suggest otherwise. AI is a tool, like a calculator or a chainsaw, and tools generally aren't substitutes for expertise, but rather levers for its application.”