Fears of AI Job Takeover Reflect Past Concerns

Even the optimists who believed that employment opportunities would eventually recover were concerned about the immediate needs of those who had lost jobs due to technological improvements. This perspective sought to reconcile the harsh reality of widespread unemployment with the optimistic view of technological advancement and its associated benefits. The first chair of the science advisory board established by Franklin D. Roosevelt was a physicist named Compton. His opening quote in a 1938 essay highlighted the dependence of our nation’s health, prosperity, and pleasure on scientific advancements.

Compton’s belief that technology had generally improved employment provoked debate. A 1940 New York Times article by labor journalist Louis Stark told of a divergence in viewpoints between Compton and Roosevelt. The then President had expressed to Congress that there was yet to be a solution for the surplus of workers resulting from industrial efficiency. Stark called for discussion on whether technological progress, by improving industrial efficiency, might eliminate jobs more rapidly than it could create them.

Stark analyzed recent data on significant productivity gains from innovative machinery and industrial processes across various sectors, including the cigar, rubber, and textile industries. Compton theorized that this would result in cheaper goods, increased demand, and consequently, more jobs. However, Stark cautioned that it was uncertain how quickly the increased productivity would translate to lower prices and increased demand.

The onset of World War II alleviated job scarcity, but concerns about employment persisted. Over the years, regardless of fluctuating economic conditions, apprehensions about job loss due to technology have remained.

Lessons about automation and AI for our current time can be drawn from not only the 1930s but also the early 1960s. Amidst high unemployment rates, some foremost intellectuals of the time feared that automation and speedy productivity growth would surpass labor demand. In 1962, Robert Solow, an MIT economist who later received the 1987 Nobel Prize for elucidating the role of technology in economic growth, dismissed the fear of automation leading to mass unemployment.

Recent anxieties surround the impact of artificial intelligence and other advanced digital technologies on the job market. The early 2010s, like the 1930s and the early 1960s, were marked by high unemployment rates due to the repercussions of the 2007-09 financial crisis. The era also witnessed the advent of remarkable technologies. Rapidly growing smartphone usage and the rise of social media, along with early sightings of autonomous vehicles and AI developments, have led to speculation about the relationship between these technological advancements and weak labor demand, and whether they could foreshadow a future without jobs.