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Computers and populism: artificial intelligence, jobs, and politics in the near term

Publication Date:
Aug 2018

Author: Frank Levy

I project the near-term future of work to ask whether job losses induced by artificial intelli- gence will increase the appeal of populist politics. The paper first explains how computers and machine learning automate workplace tasks. Automated tasks help to both create and eliminate jobs and I show why job elimination centres in blue-collar and clerical work—impacts similar to those of manufac- tured imports and offshored services. I sketch the near-term evolution of three technologies aimed at blue-collar and clerical occupations: autonomous long-distance trucks, automated customer service responses, and industrial robotics. I estimate that in the next 5–7 years, the jobs lost to each of these technologies will be modest but visible. I then outline the structure of populist politics. Populist surges are rare but a populist candidate who pits ‘the people’ (truck drivers, call centre operators, factory operatives) against ‘the elite’ (software developers, etc.) will be mining many of the US regional and education fault lines that were part of the 2016 presidential election.

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