White-Collar Workers May Be Most Impacted by AI, Says Brookings Report

Forbes Finance 3 weeks ago

​ Automation, in general, has already disrupted the American workforce. AI, specifically, is going to disrupt it even more.

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3D illustration Rendering of binary code pattern.Futuristic Particles digital Landscape wave ... [+] Abstract background for business,Science and technology

As far as the ongoing debate over who is going to be most impacted by the AI trend — blue-collar or white-collar workers — the answer, as it turns out, ​is white collar, says new research from the Brookings Institution.​ ​

"Better-paid, white-collar or office occupations may be most exposed to AI," Brookings said in summarizing the major ​findings of a report set to be published today (Nov. 20).​

Depending on the AI-impact forecast, which, like automation-impact estimates, can rage from scary to significant, it is safe to say some portion of all current occupations will be eliminated or impacted ​by AI. The term AI is ubiquitous shorthand for a specific discipline within the field of computer science and connotes digitally automated machines that can "think" i.e. learn, reason, and act for themselves.

Agriculture and manufacturing positions, mostly blue-collar but with some white-collar in the mix too, are also among the most AI-exposed fields, albeit ​slightly less so relative to straightforwardly white-collar (office) work.​ ​

Simply put, "AI could affect work in virtually every occupational group," Brookings says.

Business-finance-tech industries will be particularly exposed; thus, legions of former Wall Street equity traders and sales traders can breathe easy – having already been replaced by algorithms. AI is expected to create new employment opportunities e.g. software engineers creating algorithms enabling automated trading systems to learn as they go (as opposed to just following human-prescribed decision-tree programs). Portfolio managers worried about AI should also breathe easy.

”Exposure doesn’t necessarily mean substitution," said Mark Muro, senior fellow and policy director at Brookings' Metropolitan Policy Program, and a co-author of the report, "What jobs are affected by AI? Better-paid, better-educated workers face the most exposure."

"AI may well complement human work in many of the highlighted occupations and regions," he said.

Because AI consists of a diverse set of technologies serving myriad purposes there's been no single definition that can capture everything it entails. Broadly, though, AI involves programming computers to do things which if done by humans would be said to require “intelligence.” Under this rubric, that would include planning, learning, reasoning, problem-solving, perception and prediction.

"Contrary to other forms of automation, such as robotics and software, researchers have had little time to learn about AI’s primary use cases in the economy," the report said.

To assess the broader impact of AI on labor market impacts, a Stanford Ph.D. candidate, Michael Webb, has developed a methodology to connect the exposure of occupations with AI. Webb's analysis used a form of machine learning (natural language processing) to quantify the overlap between text from patents filed for AI technologies, and job descriptions contained in a database maintained by the U.S. Department of Labor. Brookings put Webb’s approach to work for their research.

If the AI patent text contained a verb/noun pairing (e.g. "monitoring conditions") it was cross-referenced automatically against verb/noun pairings found in DOL job descriptions, producing matches that suggest not so much a task that is going to be replaced but, rather, merely a level of exposure. Exposure levels were given scoring values. The lower the exposure score, the safer the occupation is from being replaced by an AI program. Social services and healthcare support staff, for example, scored low.

Among the major occupational categories that had the highest scores: engineering, science and business. These occupations sit right alongside manufacturing and production workers in the Brookings matrix of vulnerability. But the mere fact that they are indeed ranked close together with office workers slightly more exposed comes as something of a new wrinkle in the automation-impact debate.

"AI could affect work in virtually every occupational group," the report said. "However, whereas research on automation’s robotics and software continues to show that less-educated, lower-wage workers may be most exposed to displacement, the present analysis suggests that better-educated, better-paid workers (along with manufacturing and production workers) will be the most affected by the new AI technologies, with some exceptions."

White-collar displacement owing to AI will not come as a surprise to most Silicon Valley executives. Box, for example, is a company that automates processes for 92,000 businesses and is pushing into AI.

Tags: Business

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