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Impact of AI on jobs goes on the presidential campaign trail

The impact of AI on jobs is a major issue for employers, who are struggling with how to address it. Robots, automation and AI have become political issues as well.

The impact of AI on jobs may bruise long-haul trucking, according to a recent U.S. government report. As many as 900,000 tractor trailer jobs, nearly half its workforce, could disappear because of automation. Self-driving trucks may arrive in the next five to 10 years.

Andrew Yang, a Democratic presidential candidate, has warned of "robot trucks." He believes automation will displace millions of workers in all types of occupations. He has compared its impact to a natural disaster.

But will automation really decimate whole industries? That's the question facing business today. Employees are worried about the impact of AI on jobs. It is why candidates this year are talking about the need for businesses and governments to reskill workers. When Amazon announced last year a $1 billion internal employee training program, it cited the impacts of machine learning and robotics. As industries go, trucking may be hit hard, but advances in technology can also deliver other types of jobs.

People who are a good fit for long-haul trucking might make ideal space truckers -- piloting spacecraft carrying supplies to colonies on Mars and the moon, said Kristina Libby, executive vice president of future science and research at Hypergiant Industries LLC.

If it takes six months to get from Earth to Mars, "Who has the personality to do that?" Libby asked. "What's a long haul trucker? Someone who can spend a lot of time alone."

There's a little bit of whimsy in Libby's statements. It's hard to imagine land-based truck drivers reskilling as astronauts -- and the spacecraft may also be fully automated. Her broader points are that advancing technology isn't just going to take away jobs, it's going to create new jobs that don't exist yet. The space industry, for example, will grow as an employer, Libby said. A recent Morgan Stanley study estimates the global space industry growing from $350 billion today to more than $1 trillion by 2040, she noted.

Yang boosted AI as an election topic

Yang, an entrepreneur and attorney, has made AI an issue for other candidates, said Zachary Jarvinen, head of technology strategy for AI and analytics at enterprise information management firm OpenText Corp. The only other candidate who talked about AI early on in his candidacy was Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey. Booker recently dropped out of the race.

"The discourse changed" when Yang "very directly began to talk about things like AI and automation, and how that is a driving force changing our economy," Jarvinen said.

Jarvinen worked on former President Barack Obama's 2008 digital team, which used social media as a tool to interact with voters. Jarvinen, who isn't making any endorsements in this race, believes Yang has a deep grasp of AI. Jarvinen is following how AI is being discussed in the race, as are some technology industry professionals.

Professional services firm KPMG International recently released a survey of 751 U.S. "business decision makers" who have some knowledge of AI. Among the survey's conclusions, "within 10 years, we'll all likely be in the passenger seats of autonomous vehicles." Financial services, healthcare and retail will also see major changes, it reported.

Two in five respondents said their "employees have concerns about job losses as a result of AI," according to the KPMG report.

Reskilling is the mainstream position

In the metro area of South Bend, Ill., a 2019 study by Washington-based think tank New America estimated that 36% of more than 120,000 jobs were at high risk of being lost to automation. These jobs include retail salespeople, cashiers, fast food workers, office clerks and other lower-paying jobs.

Chris Nicholson, CEO at Pathmind Inc., believes AI will bring major changes, but argued these estimates are one-dimensional.

Reports like this don't account for "the job titles and roles that don't exist yet -- the professions that don't exist yet," he said. The San Francisco-based firm uses AI to analyze complex business scenarios, such as how to manage a call center or where to build a new factory.

Democratic candidates, with the exception of Yang, aren't talking about the loss of jobs to automation. Instead, their focus has been more about ongoing education to adapt to a changing economy. "Lifelong learning is our best way to make sure workers can win in the era of automation," South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg said in a tweet last year.

Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota wants legislation to create tax-free accounts for education and professional development.

Former Vice President Joe Biden highlighted the need for getting unions involved to retrain workers. Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont has pitched requiring companies that lay off workers as part of outsourcing work overseas, or through automation, to share the financial gains with workers.

The AI-related issues raised by Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts have been about algorithmic bias in financial services in particular.

Trump has set AI policies

President Donald Trump has not said much about the impact of AI on jobs on the campaign trail, but the administration has cited the need for AI to maintain U.S. leadership, both economically and militarily. It has also called for education and training.

It was the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) that outlined the possible impact of automated trucks in its report. Automated trucks have potential to drive on highways or freeways, although not on local roads, it said.

These jobs did not exist less than five years ago, and they are turning a profit.
Cornelio AshAI research analyst, William O'Neil and Company Inc.

Advanced trucking technology could include "platoons," where a line of trucks moves together, with a human driver in the lead truck. Automation could reduce the cost of transporting goods by trucks, increase the use of trucks and, by doing so, create more jobs for local, short-distance truck drivers, the GAO noted.

What is clear is that the AI industry is rapidly rising, said Cornelio Ash, an AI research analyst with William O'Neil and Company Inc., an independent equity research and advisory firm.

Ash, who follows the AI sector, is seeing AI firms become successful within five years of formation. "These companies did not exist -- these jobs did not exist less than five years ago, and they are turning a profit," he said.

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