Dr. Jason Dean, Assistant Professor of Economics with the School of Management, Economics, and Mathematics, shares his perspective on the positive, negative and ethical issues related to artificial intelligence today and in the future.

The potential benefits of artificial intelligence (AI) are enormous. Nearly every day, we see media reports on breakthroughs in AI. It is becoming increasingly clear that the technology has the potential to vastly improve our economic well-being, cure diseases, and even better predict natural disasters like earthquakes and tsunamis.

However, I think many of us will encounter the most immediate and striking effects in the workplace. Many routine and mundane tasks will be automated, allowing us to focus on more meaningful and fulfilling work. New and more interesting jobs will be created in the AI sector, and we will see unprecedented productivity increases. This is key as productivity and economic prosperity go hand in hand. 

In the 19th century, over half of our labour force worked in agriculture, often enduring gruelling work weeks of more than 60 hours. Now, a mere 1.5% of Canadians work in agriculture. We work fewer hours and have more food than we know what to do with. Over the years, this has allowed us to dedicate more resources towards things like social services, education and healthcare.

In recent decades, the pace of productivity has plateaued as we have transitioned into a more service-oriented economy. Services require human labour and are less easily automated compared to manufacturing. AI has the potential to break this stagnation – and by a lot. In fact, some claim the impact could even exceed that of the Industrial Revolution, given its rapid adoption, breadth, and the potential for unprecedented productivity gains. For example, machine learning algorithms can analyze medical images in minutes, whereas it would take a radiologist hours to do the same. In the legal field, AI can scan thousands of documents in seconds, a mundane job that would take a human researcher hours or days. Even in education, AI like Chat GPT can act as a real-time tutor, generating study materials and providing homework assistance, and also accelerate research productivity by aiding in brainstorming, automating citations, data cleaning and analysis, coding, and more. 

That being said, AI's wide applicability and rapid acceleration present a double-edged sword. On one hand, the immediate and widespread increases in productivity mean a faster path to improved economic well-being. But on the other hand, it will likely lead to significant and immediate disruptions to the labour market.

Traditional tech advancements like assembly lines in manufacturing or electric looms in textiles usually impacted specific industries, so the degree of disruption was not pervasive. This is not the case with AI. In fact, some research indicates that as many as one in four white-collar U.S. jobs could be automated.

The speed at which AI is evolving is unprecedented. Unlike the internet, which took years to become a disruptive technology, AI has reached this point already, and the consequences can be devastating to people and families, leading to real emotional and financial hardship. Older workers will be especially hard hit as they do not have the time to retrain and reintegrate into the labour market, risking long-term unemployment. 

Governments have a role to play in mitigating the disruption, especially for the most vulnerable, and leveraging the benefits of this technology. We must consider how we can allocate a part of the newly generated wealth - to strengthen social safety nets, provide mental health support, finance job retraining, and possibly implement a targeted Universal Basic Income for older workers. While there are certainly challenges, let's not forget that it's the very technology causing disruptions that also has the potential to revolutionize medical diagnostics and drug discoveries, offering a path to alleviate human suffering on an unprecedented scale.