January 28, 2020
Education Could Shield Workers from AI
Not so long ago, computers were incapable of driving a car or translating a traveler’s question from English to Hindi.
Artificial intelligence changed all that.
Computers have advanced beyond the routine work they do so efficiently on assembly lines and in financial company back offices. Today, major advances in artificial intelligence, namely machine learning, have opened up a new pathway to expanding the tasks computers can do – and, potentially, the number of workers who may lose their jobs to progress over the next 20 years.
Machine learning works this way. A computer used to identify a cat by following explicit instructions telling it a cat has pointy ears, fur, and whiskers. Now, a computer can rapidly analyze and synthesize vast amounts of data to recognize a cat, based on millions of images labeled “cat” and “not-cat.” Eventually, the machine “learns” to see a cat.
But is this technological leap fundamentally different than past advances in terms of what it will mean for workers? And what about older workers, who arguably are more vulnerable to progress, because they have less time to see the payoff from updating their outmoded skills?
The answer, according to a third and final report in a series on technology’s impact on the labor market, is that advances in machine learning are likely to affect all workers – regardless of age – in the same way that computers have over the past 40 years.
And the dividing line, according to the Center for Retirement Research, will not be age. The dividing line will continue to be education: job options are expected to narrow for workers lacking a college degree or other specialized training, while jobs requiring these credentials will expand.
The researchers estimated that only 11 percent of the workers in the occupations most at risk of disappearing – from factory workers to baristas – have college degrees. Among jobs with a moderate risk – say, administrators and personal care assistants – 21 percent have degrees. But 59 percent of the workers in the lowest-risk occupations – say, managers and lawyers – have degrees.
The low-risk jobs are protected, because they rely on talents not easily replicated by computers, such as social skills, creativity, and problem-solving. In fact, some of these non-routine skills tend to improve with age, giving older workers an edge in certain situations. Further, baby boomers are just as likely as younger workers to hold a degree.
“While education has long been an important determinant of job prospects, its role is likely to be accentuated going forward,” the researchers conclude.
To read the brief, authored by Anek Belbase and Andrew Eschtruth, see “How Will Emerging Computers Affect Older Workers by 2040?”
The research reported herein was derived in whole or in part from research activities performed pursuant to a grant from the U.S. Social Security Administration (SSA) funded as part of the Retirement and Disability Research Consortium. The opinions and conclusions expressed are solely those of the authors and do not represent the opinions or policy of SSA, any agency of the federal government, or Boston College. Neither the United States Government nor any agency thereof, nor any of their employees, make any warranty, express or implied, or assumes any legal liability or responsibility for the accuracy, completeness, or usefulness of the contents of this report. Reference herein to any specific commercial product, process or service by trade name, trademark, manufacturer, or otherwise does not necessarily constitute or imply endorsement, recommendation or favoring by the United States Government or any agency thereof.