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When will automation start reshaping the US economy?

Earlier this year, researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) found that one in two American jobs are vulnerable to automation. The team also found that 73 per cent of US citizens believe AI will reduce the overall number of jobs in the market.

So, the question stands: are robots going to take your job?

Maybe, but probably not, at least not yet. This may not be the reassurance people are looking for, and while there are reasons for apprehension, there are also reasons to be cheerful. The bad news is that the earliest cases of automation eliminating jobs come at the lower end of the skills spectrum.

The manufacturing sector is an early example of this. Car plant closures often happen at factories that are the least modern (that is, the least automated). The service sector is not immune, however, and contact centres are a big focus for AI. Chatbots, whether text or voice-based, are reducing the number of agents needed. An extreme example of automation reducing the need for humans came in June 2018 in China when the Chinese e-commerce giant JD.com opened a fulfilment centre processing around 200,00 orders a day. The fulfilment centre employs four people and those people are there to maintain the robots.

The good news is that the change will be gradual. While the pace of change is certainly faster than the industrial revolution, which took around a century, the transition is likely to take between 20 and 40 years. Fully automated, AI-powered factories are expensive and complicated to build. New factories may be built with more or total automation but more human-oriented factories will not disappear instantly.

Another factor to consider is that while AI will bring change, it will also bring growth. PWC estimates that by 2030 AI will generate an additional $15.7 trillion of value to the global economy. In the UK, it will contribute 10 per cent GDP growth over the same period. More money means more jobs. No one can yet predict where or what those jobs will be, but the more money there is to spend the more entrepreneurs will find new things for people to spend it on.

This latest technological revolution will need to be managed. Balances will need to be struck between economic and social considerations – and considered in both a local and a global context. This will provide a lot of challenges for governments and AI is already becoming a political hot potato. Education will need to adapt to provide the right kind of potential employees. But there are already signs that employers are responding to the change. For example, Vodafone has launched an employee re-skilling programme to train former contact centre employees as coders.

The final factor to consider is that although AI will be able to do many things, it remains a fact that humans like humans. We are a social species and early research already suggests that AI works best when it works to maximise human potential. The machines may be rising, but humans are still in charge.

This article initially appeared on Verdict, which is part of the same group as GlobalData and NS Tech