David Autor on the design of how we use AI and work polarization


MIT professsor David Autor is one of the leading labor economists in the world and expert on the impact of technology on work. I have frequently referenced his work, notably on the polarization of work

An interview in Financial Times shares his perspectives on the role of AI in work. As Autor emphasizes and I have been saying for many years, the issue is in the design of work and the economy, and the mental models we apply to how we do that.

The whole interview is worth reading, here are a few excerpts.

“I think AI is going to reduce the bottleneck of expertise in some areas, but that can complement others. There are many paths where you have foundational judgment, acquired through experience or training, bounded by some upper bound of technical or specific knowledge… The good case for AI is where it enables people with foundational expertise or judgment to do more expert work with less expertise. 

We do see reduced hiring at firms adopting AI in some of the tasks that AI is good for — information processing, some software coding, decision-making tasks. But I don’t think that is in any sense a full description of what’s going to occur. It’s actually a challenge of job design to figure out how we reallocate and redesign work, given the tools we now have available. This often takes a long time to figure out.

The question we should be concerned about is not the number of jobs. We have a labour shortage throughout the industrialised world. I am concerned about the number of jobs in Mumbai, but in the UK, in the US and northern, western Europe, we are running out of workers. The concern we should have is about expertise. If people are doing expert work that pays well and now they have to do generic work that pays poorly, that’s a concern. It’s the quality of jobs, not the quantity. The problem is technology can make some expertise much, much more valuable, but in other cases, it directly replaces expertise we already have.

Technology can be both very helpful or very harmful. It’s helpful to the degree it complements expertise and makes people’s skill set more valuable by allowing them to do more with it. It’s harmful to the degree that it takes skills that we’ve invested in that are the basis of our livelihood and makes them so abundant that they aren’t worth anything any more. I think we have a real design choice about how we deploy AI. It is so flexible, broadly applicable and malleable that we can do lots of stuff with it, some quite good, some quite bad, and depending on the mental model we have in mind of what we’re trying to do, we will accomplish different things.

If we could reinstate the value of mass expertise by enabling people to do more in the trades, in healthcare, in contracting construction, in even some of the writing tasks that we do, that would be spectacular. If it comes at the expense of making some elite expertise less scarce I think that’s ok. I don’t think people with PhDs and MDs and JDs are going to be wiped out. They may just not see the same year over year wage growth that they’ve seen over the last several decades. That’s ok. They’ve had a good run and they’ll be fine.”