SALT LAKE CITY — The Salt Lake and Ogden-Clearfield areas are among the top 10 regions in the United States that will be most affected by the rise of artificial intelligence, according to a study recently released by Washington D.C.-based research group the Brookings Institution.
In the past, research has suggested that AI will disproportionately affect blue-collar and low-income workers, like factory employees or office clerks, who will soon find themselves replaced by machines. But past research hasn’t often distinguished between the coming effects of advancements in robotics and software, and those of artificial intelligence, or computers that can plan, learn, reason and problem solve.
As robotics and software become more sophisticated, they’ll replace employees in industries like manufacturing, construction or clerical work, the study claims. But artificial intelligence will change the world of the white-collar worker more than anything else — and Salt Lake and Ogden will be in the thick of it.
In fact, AI will disproportionately affect areas that specialize in industries like technology, engineering, science, transportation, manufacturing and law, the study shows. And Utah’s booming tech sector has not gone unnoticed.
“Among the most AI-exposed large metro areas are San Jose, Calif., Seattle, Salt Lake City and Ogden, Utah — all high-tech centers,” the study reads.
Those four tech hubs are joined in the top 10 most-affected areas by agriculture, logistics and manufacturing centers like Bakersfield, California; Greenville, South Carolina; Detroit, Michigan; and Louisville, Kentucky.
Higher educated and higher paid workers will be most affected by the rise of AI in the coming decades, and workers with bachelor’s degrees will be more than five times as exposed to artificial intelligence as workers with high school degrees, the study shows.
Eventually, AI will be a “significant factor in the future work lives of relatively well-paid managers, supervisors and analysts,” according to the report.
Should we be worried?
“Nobody can predict the future,” said Dan Ventura, a computer science professor at Brigham Young University who specializes in artificial intelligence research.
While the study’s methodology and predictions are “kind of cool” and “better than nothing,” they’re just that: predictions, Ventura explained. And the study acknowledges its shortcomings, too.
“While the present assessment predicts areas of work in which some kind of impact is expected, it doesn’t specifically predict whether AI will substitute for existing work, complement it, or create entirely new work for humans,” the study reads.
AI is getting “disturbingly good” at pattern recognition and pattern matching, including tasks like facial recognition or medical diagnosing from images, Ventura said. But it falls short in other areas.
“AI is not good at judgement right now. And even to the extent that it is good at judgement, people don’t trust it and don’t know if they can trust it. So they’re not going to turn that kind of thing over to AI. At least, they shouldn’t,” he said.
So while Ventura believes jobs that require skills like pattern recognition may be threatened, those that involve judgment calls are probably safe for a while.
“What’s interesting about this (study) is the claim that they’re making that, probably for the first time, this sort of displacement concern, it isn’t focused on lower education, lower skill … it’s the other kind of people that they’re worried about. And I think that’s pretty interesting, even if I’m not sure I buy it all the way,” he said.
Ventura does predict, however, that even if AI replaces certain high-skill jobs, new jobs will pop up in response. The rise of artificial intelligence will most likely require (at least in the beginning) something like AI quality control to ensure that the new technology isn’t making mistakes.
AI is not good at judgement right now. And even to the extent that it is good at judgement, people don’t trust it.
– Dan Ventura, BYU computer science professor
And while the rise of AI may cause some workforce casualties along the way, Ventura expects the labor market will adapt to the technological advancements, as it has throughout all of human history.
Mark Knold, chief economist of Utah’s Department of Workforce Services, agrees.
His research shows that there simply aren’t enough workers to maintain the size of the U.S. economy as it stands. Instead, the labor market must either allow more immigrants into the country, let the economy shrink in size, or let machines do some of the work, he said.
Artificial intelligence won’t replace workers, it will replace missing workers, he argues.
“A lot of these studies … can leave you the impression with a fear of the future,” Knold said. “I think that’s the wrong takeaway from studies like this. … There’s always new technologies coming that threaten old technologies and workers in those old technologies. But yet, as time goes on, they transition to the new ones, and things are even bigger and better.”
How do we prepare?
If workers are going to be ready to adapt to the change artificial intelligence brings to the workforce, education will need to adapt too, Ventura explained.
But the BYU professor believes the state’s educational system is already behind, even at the university level.
“In my little computer science environment, we’re not out of touch with it at all,” he said. “But if you look at the general education program (at BYU), there’s nothing. There’s no computer science (or) algorithmic stuff in general education. It’s just not a thing.”
Utah’s fast-growing tech companies have been aware of a talent gap for awhile as they scramble to find employees to fill their ever-expanding needs. But research shows that unless children are exposed to computer science at an early age, they’re much less likely to choose it as a career.
While Utah is working to bring computer science to all K-12 schools in the state by 2022, it’s a difficult feat, and educational curriculums don’t change nearly as fast as technology.
“If this AI boom continues to happen, and technology continues to march forward, and we see some of these paradigm-shifting kinds of things, that’ll just make us even more behind,” Ventura said.