Will A.I. Take All Our Jobs? This Economist Suggests Maybe Not.

Let’s say for now that the day comes when robots and artificial intelligence can outperform human beings at every conceivable job, from waxing floors to waxing eyebrows to waxing philosophical at a lectern. Will there still be work for people?

There could be, says Noah Smith, a blogging economist. “It’s very possible that regular humans will have plentiful, high-paying jobs in the age of A.I. dominance — often doing much the same kind of work that they’re doing right now,” he wrote Sunday on his Substack.

I ran Smith’s argument by several economists who think a lot about these issues, and they were skeptical. But there’s so much pessimism around the future of work these days that Smith’s take comes as a welcome ray of sunshine. That’s why I’m taking it seriously.

Smith rests his case on one of the most beautiful theories in economics: comparative advantage, which boils down to “do what you’re best at.” The theory implies that even if Martha Stewart has an absolute advantage in ironing shirts — she does it better than anyone else in the world — she should still have someone else iron her shirts for her, because her time is better spent on something she’s even better at, namely producing TV shows. (I took this example from a Marginal Revolution University video.)

The relevance to artificial intelligence is obvious. To maximize profit, the owners of A.I. will want to put it to work doing things it’s a million times as good at as people, and not bother with jobs for which it’s only twice as good as people. That leaves space for human beings to keep working for a living rather than taking handouts.

The theory of comparative advantage would hold even if A.I. got super cheap, Smith argues. As long as the computing power available for A.I. is a scarce resource, its owners will always want to put it to its highest and best use. Which is probably not going to be teaching yoga or writing this newsletter.

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