The impact of automation and AI on the U.S. workforce has been a longstanding issue in presidential politics. That may be true again at tonight’s presidential debate.
In discussing automation, Biden has pointed to self-driving trucks, their threat to millions of trucking jobs and the need for more job training.
Trump hasn’t tweeted once about automation and robots, but when asked in 2017 by The New York Times whether factory jobs will be replaced by robots, he said, “They will, and we’ll make the robots, too.”
When it comes to automation and AI, the candidates aren’t as far apart as they are on other issues. They both support rapid development of AI technologies, and they want the U.S. to be the global leader of AI development. They also agree that the current workforce needs to be reskilled to get there.
And neither candidate has given the topic of automation the kind of attention President John F. Kennedy gave it more than 60 years ago, when he was running for president in 1960. Kennedy worried about tech’s job impact and was vocal about his concern.
John F. KennedyPresidential candidate, 1960
Speaking at a meeting of union workers in Michigan, Kennedy said that, “the steady replacement of men by machines – the advance of automation – is already threatening to destroy thousands of jobs and wipe out entire plants.”
Regardless, automation and AI may be an ongoing issue in the run-up to Election Day, and the candidates will have to address the economic fallout brought on by such advances.
In a study last year, the Brookings Institution, a think tank based in Washington, D.C., stated that over the next few decades, approximately 25% of U.S. employment is at risk of being automated – especially administrative jobs, as well as those in food services and transportation. The disruption won’t be mass unemployment, but moving displaced workers to new jobs.
“Workers need to switch jobs, often learning new skills, changing occupations and industries, and moving to new locations,” Brookings stated.
In the software and SaaS industry, AI is automating administrative processes. Oracle, for example, released upgrades today to its HCM products that help reduce administrative burden by automating some processes.
A longstanding fear of automation
The fear and debate that automation will take current jobs is several hundred years old.
In presidential politics, worries about automation and AI have remained since Kennedy’s run in 1960. In 2017, in his last month in office, President Barack Obama voiced concern about AI’s impact on labor.
“The next wave of economic dislocations won’t come from overseas. It will come from the relentless pace of automation that makes a lot of good, middle-class jobs obsolete,” Obama said.
While Trump may not be tweeting about AI, the White House has shined a light on the need to reskill the workforce.
“Even if job creation outpaces job destruction in the years ahead, the skills required in newly created jobs will be different from those in jobs eliminated by automation,” the White House Council of Economic Advisers wrote in a 2018 report.
Both candidates want AI investment
The Trump administration wants to accelerate AI development, but his effort has been criticized for a lack of funding.
Biden’s platform calls for billions of dollars of new funds for R&D, including AI, as well as training to reskill the workforce to adapt.
After running into an old classmate who was a truck driver, Biden used the encounter to frame his concern about self-driving vehicles.
“He knows he’s in trouble,” Biden said in a speech last year. He said his former classmate and others are “scared to death; they’re scared to death,” of self-driving trucks.
Andrew Yang, an entrepreneur and former Democratic primary candidate, also stressed the impact self-driving vehicles could have on the trucking industry during his candidacy. He warned that as many as 3.5 million jobs may be at risk. In a comment on automation, then-candidate Pete Buttigieg said workers will need “lifelong learning.”
In software, AI gains arrive release by release
While the warnings seem dramatic, the productivity gains that automation and AI bring to the economy will arrive slowly.
In the software industry, with ERP and most SaaS applications, for example, automation changes arrive release by release.
Such is the case in Oracle’s latest software updates, announced today. Oracle is announcing upgrades to its ERP products, and some of the enhancements eliminate repetitive tasks. One system will “automate routine and mundane data entry.”
Automating rote tasks “allows customers to focus on complex issues requiring human judgement,” Oracle said.
But asked to quantify what the productivity gains may mean in terms of saved labor hours, for instance, Rondy Ng, senior vice president of applications development at Oracle, couldn’t make a generalization. He said productivity gains will vary from customer to customer and will depend on how far along they are in modernizing their systems.
At a U.S. House Committee hearing this month on automation, John Yarmuth (D-Ky.), chairman of the House Budget Committee, warned that automation and AI could exacerbate income inequality, “and push more people into poverty when we eventually emerge from this recession.”
According to a report summarizing the committee’s concerns, “While advancements in AI could create more opportunities for workers with advanced education or specialized skills, workers without these skills could see shrinking opportunities.”