Obama warns of the danger of AI wiping out jobs


— WASHINGTON (CNNMoney) — President Obama joined a chorus of those warning of the potential downsides of artificial intelligence.

In an interview with Wired Magazine, Obama spoke of redesigning the social compact and starting a conversation around fair wages. He cited teachers as being underpaid, and called for a reexamination of what we value, and what we’ll pay for.

Obama addressed basic income, a proposal for all citizens to receive a government stipend in order to meet their costs of living. The idea has gained recent support among some futurists and economists, given concerns over how technology will eliminate jobs and impact salaries in coming years.

“Whether a universal income is the right model — is it gonna be accepted by a broad base of people? — that’s a debate that we’ll be having over the next 10 or 20 years,” Obama said.

A 2013 Oxford study concluded that 47% of U.S. jobs are at risk of being handled by machines over perhaps a decade or two. Some experts fear we’re headed toward mass unemployment.

Truck drivers, cab drivers and deliveryman are the most prominent example of those at risk. The tech and car industries are currently pouring billions into self-driving vehicle technology.

Businesses have long embraced automation because it lowers their costs and improves profits. But advances in technology are expected to broadly expand the jobs that automated machines can handle.

Of course, most Americans once worked on farms. Our country has survived transitions before. Yet experts caution this revolution in how we work could unfold much quicker, making it more difficult and unpleasant.

“Oh, we survived the Industrial Revolution, sure we did. But millions of people suffered tremendous hardship,” said Oren Etzioni, CEO of the Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence, in a recent interview with CNNMoney. “This revolution could be faster and sharper and more devastating.”

The tech industry has made rapid advances because for decades, computers have doubled in strength every two years, what’s called Moore’s Law. For example, the everyday smartphone is more powerful than the computers used to land on the moon. The graphics on today’s video games are overwhelmingly better than 20 years ago.

Tech companies that rely on cutting-edge computers, robots and software — Apple, Google, Microsoft, Amazon and Facebook — have become America’s five biggest businesses in recent years.

There are signs that we’re already seeing the impact of digital technologies on employment. The number of working U.S. men has been declining for more than 60 years, according to a recent White House report. In 1954, 98% of men between the ages of 25 and 54 were in the workforce. Today, that figure is 88%.

Median wages are no longer keeping pace with the U.S. GDP, thinning out the middle class. Wealth is increasingly held by the top 1% of the country. Money is concentrated in a smaller group of people in digital businesses, which are increasingly winner-take-all markets. MIT professors Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee detailed this in their 2014 book, The Second Machine Age.

While there were multiple big winners in earlier times, think Coke and Pepsi coexisting, or Ford and GM — in the digital world there’s generally only one winner. Look at Google in the search engine space, Microsoft’s dominance on desktop operating systems and Facebook’s runway success in social networking.

While technology has for centuries generally improved the human condition, it always brings some negatives too. And it’s up to us to figure out what to do about them.