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Is Advanced Automation Disrupting the Livelihoods of Black Workers?

Like it or not, cashier-less grocers, teller-less banks and driver-less cars are just a few examples of evolving automated technologies and artificial intelligence (AI) transforming the way American society works, interacts and lives. Given their rapid proliferation and increasing capabilities, such technologies are threatening to disrupt many roles and industries long dependent upon human labor.

A McKinsey & Company report revealed that “currently demonstrated technologies could automate 45 percent of the activities people are paid to perform, and that about 60 percent of all occupations could see 30 percent or more of their constituent activities automated, again, with technologies available today.”

While it is difficult to pinpoint what functions and industries will be most affected by artificial intelligence — a wide, hard-to-define term that prominent data scientist Anthony Scriffignano described as a “collection of things designed to either mimic behavior, mimic thinking, behave intelligently, behave rationally, behave empathetically” — it is easier to assume the type of worker impacted, be it in manufacturing, customer service or other industries. A 2016 report by the Obama White House found that the primary jobs at risk from increasing automation are “highly concentrated among lower-paid, lower-skilled, and less-educated workers” and that “automation will continue to put downward pressure on demand for this group, putting downward pressure on wages and upward pressure on inequality.

It is well-known there is a disproportionate representation of African-American families within this at-risk group. However, some paint a more nuanced picture regarding the impact of advancing technologies on the plight of Black workers.

“I would reframe the way we talk about this impact,” said Dr. Steven C. Pitts, associate chair of the Center for Labor Research and Education at University of California, Berkeley. The issue, offered Pitts, is more appropriately viewed by “raising the question of what occupations have those tasks that are more easily routinized. The more easily you can take a task and insert it into a computer and make it a 0-1 thing” as in binary code, “the more easily you can bring in some form of high technology computer or AI.”

“There are a lot of ‘low-skilled’ workers who are homecare aides, but they can’t be replaced by a robot,” Pitts pointed out, noting “it’s not so much about skilled and unskilled, it’s more a matter of the capacity it takes for the task and making it into a routine they can mechanize.”

Nonetheless, the Obama administration report warned of the potential for displacement and job loss from an increasingly stratified labor market where only highly educated and skilled workers benefit from job stability. It further suggested that even this highly-specialized group, over time, could grow smaller as reduced competition and increased wealth inequality concentrate labor in markets dominated by a few. It’s certainly not hard to envision such a scenario leaving many workers, African-American in particular, behind.

Yet some are not concerned by the possibility of newly automated technologies supplanting the roles of humans. In March, incoming Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin told Axios Media he was “not worried at all” about it, and that the attitude of the Trump administration is “it’s not even on our radar screen” being “50 to 100 more years” away.

“What technology has done is sped up the change that we have to face,” said Pitts. “So the idea that the impact of artificial intelligence is 50 years away is, at best, wrong.”

Since the late 20th century, computerization and the internet have increased the productivity of higher-skilled workers, given these technologies greatly enhanced their problem-solving, performance speed and functional capabilities. Simultaneously, many routine-based occupations characterized by rote, predictable or easily-programmable functions, like those of factory assembly workers, gas station attendants, switchboard operators or filing clerks, were largely replaced within the increasing demand for more abstract and creative workers.

While computerization and internet technologies are not synonymous with artificial intelligence, they are essential tools employed within it. Artificial intelligence uses computer and internet technologies to mimic the cognitive and intelligent processes of the human brain and mind, including learning and problem solving and, in doing so, can further disrupt human labor.

“As AI changes the nature of work and the skills demanded by the labor market, American workers will need to be prepared with the education and training that can help them continue to succeed,” read the Obama administration report. “If the United States fails to improve at educating children and retraining adults with the skills needed in an increasingly AI-driven economy, the country risks leaving millions of Americans behind and losing its position as the global economic leader.”

Accordingly, some are working to ensure that Black intelligence plays an important role in these rapidly-increasing technologies. A number of organizations have recently popped up around the country, either Black-owned or accessible, which teach computer coding and the related technologies fueling artificial intelligence to African-Americans.

However, Pitts clarified that such programs, while significant in their own individual way, don’t address the problem of worker displacement at hand. “Having a ten year-old kid code won’t stop their grandfather or grandmother from losing their job.”

Consistent with his labor center colleague Annette Bernhardt who recently challenged the “near-fatalistic acceptance of the current path of technological development,” Pitts promotes a human process of moderating technology to minimize its potential harm. “If the idea is that we regulate its use, then we should examine who has a say in the use of that technology,” he stressed, noting such regulation could occur at the organizational, union or governmental level. “To the extent there is some sort of displacement occurring, then we deal with how to mitigate the impact.”

“The most important issue is the question of who controls the development and application of technology and, by and large, the approach has simply been that the owner of the firm should be the one that decides how to employ the technology,” continued Pitts.

But, he added, “You could imagine a world that says that people who work in the firm have the same sort of say over the use of and deploying of technology as the owner does himself.”

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