How a tech skeptic decided that artificial intelligence could benefit the middle class

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David Autor looks like a unlikely optimist of artificial intelligence (AI).

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This labor economist Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) is best known for its extensive studies showing the extent to which technology and trade have eroded the incomes of millions of American workers over the years.

But Autor now claims that the new technological wave (Generative artificial intelligence, capable of producing hyper-realistic images and videos and convincingly imitating human voice and writing) could reverse this trend.

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“If used well, AI can help restore the middle-class heart of the American job market, which has been hollowed out by automation and globalization,” Autor wrote in an article that Noema magazine published in February.


Autor’s position on artificial intelligence may seem like a surprising conversion for an expert on the victims of technology.

But he said the facts have changed and so has his way of thinking.

According to Autor, modern artificial intelligence is a technology very different which opens the doors to new possibilities.

Furthermore, it can change the economics of high-stakes decision-making so that more people can take on some of the work that is now the purview of expensive elite experts such as doctors, lawyers, computer engineers, and university professors.

And if more people, including those without college degrees, could do more valuable work, They should charge more which would increase the number of workers up to the middle class.

The researcher, who The Economist Once called “the academic voice of the American worker,” he began his career as a software developer and director of a nonprofit dedicated to computer science education, before turning to economics and spending decades studying computer science . impact of technology and globalization on workers and wages.

Autor, 59, authored an influential study in 2003 that concluded that 60 percent of the shift in demand in favor of college-educated workers over the previous three decades was attributable to computerization.

What will be the impact of generative AI?What will be the impact of generative AI?

Subsequent research has examined technology’s role in polarizing wages and skewing employment growth toward low-wage service jobs.

Other economists, however, consider the author’s latest treatise as a stimulating exercise in reflection speculative.


“I’m a big fan of David Autor’s work, but his hypothesis is just one possible scenario,” said Laura Tyson, a professor at the Haas School of Business at the University of California, Berkeley, who was president of the Council of Economic Advisors during the Clinton administration.

“There is broad consensus that AI will deliver a productivity advantage, but how this will translate into wages and employment is very uncertain.”

This uncertainty usually tends towards pessimism. Not only Silicon Valley doomsayers but mainstream economists predict that many jobs, from call center workers to software developers, are at risk.

In a report last year, Goldman Sachs concluded this Generative AI it could automate tasks equivalent to 300 million full-time jobs worldwide.

In Autor’s most recent report, also published by the National Bureau of Economic Research, the possibility that artificial intelligence could completely replace human judgment is excluded.

And he believes the demand for medical care, software, education and legal advice is almost unlimited, so cost reduction should expand these fields as your products and services become more affordable.

It is “not a prediction, but an argument” in favor of an alternative future, very different from the worker apocalypse predicted by, among others, Elon Musk.

The author commented that, until now, computers were programmed to follow rules.

They have become better, faster and cheaper.

And routine tasks, such as those in the office or factory, could be reduced to an increasingly automated set of step-by-step rules.

These jobs were generally filled by mid-level workers without four-year college degrees.

Instead, AI is trained by large amounts of data:

almost all of the text, images, and software code on the Internet.

When required, powerful AI chatbots such as Open AI’s ChatGPT and Google’s Gemini can generate reports and computer programs or answer questions.

“He doesn’t know the rules,” Autor explained.

“Learn by absorbing lots of examples. It’s completely different from what we had in computer science.”

An AI assistant, he said, equipped with a set of learned examples can offer “guidance” (in healthcare, have you considered this diagnosis?) and “protection” (don’t prescribe these two drugs together).

In this way, according to Autor, AI does not become a job killer, but rather a “worker’s complementary technology“, which allows someone without as much experience to do more valuable work.


Early studies on generative AI in the workplace highlight its potential.

A research project conducted by two MIT graduate students, whom Autor mentored, assigned tasks such as writing short reports or press releases to office professionals.

Artificial intelligence has increased the productivity of all workers, but the least skilled and experienced ones have benefited the most.

Further research with call center operators and computer programmers found a similar model.

But even if AI provides the greatest productivity gains to less experienced workers, that doesn’t mean they’ll reap the rewards of higher wages and better career paths.

This will also depend on the behavior of companies, the bargaining power of workers and political incentives.

Daron Acemoglu, an MIT economist and occasional Autor contributor, said his colleague’s vision is a possible path, but not necessarily the most likely.

For Acemoglu, history is not all in favor of the optimists.

“We’ve been here before with other digital technologies and that hasn’t happened,” he said.

The author acknowledges the challenges.

“But I think it’s helpful to imagine a positive outcome, encourage debate, and prepare for a better future,” he says.

“This technology is a tool and it is up to us to decide how to use it.”

c.2024 The New York Times Company

Source: Clarin

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