Matt Hamblen looks at how cities are addressing the impact of artificial intelligence on the jobs and skills in their communities. But is it enough?
Automation, artificial intelligence (AI) and the future of work are gaining attention as autonomous test vehicles hit the road in the US and elsewhere.
“I’m scared,” a career long-haul truck driver says in a VICE special report, The Future of Work, now streaming on HBO. “What would I do if I didn’t drive? I don’t know.”
Another worker at an Amazon sorting facility ponders this equally unnerving question: “Are the robotic cabinets that transport packages on the sorting room floor working for the employee, or is the worker multi-tasking for the robot?”
Such concerns mimic the worries about the steam engine replacing horses in the 1800s. They often get dismissed by technology innovators as little more than the views of Luddites. However, prominent tech leaders, including Elon Musk, have urged elected officials and policy-makers to look at new ways to adapt to AI, including re-training workers who face being displaced – especially those in manufacturing and transportation jobs.
Preparations vary from place to place on how to to get cities and workers ready for the job-related effects of AI.
“To date, I don’t see any government agencies – local, state or federal – doing much on the problem,” said Jack Gold, an analyst at J. Gold Associates. But that’s partly to be expected, he said, because cities historically lag behind the private sector in adapting to new technologies.
“To date, I don’t see any government agencies – local, state or federal – doing much on the problem."
Kansas City, Missouri, is examining how it can foster new technologies while keeping in mind its ongoing goal to make sure low-income people can benefit equally. The home of the first Google Fiber rollout in the US, KCMO has made a concerted effort to get poorer families equipped for distance learning and home-based businesses to improve their incomes.
“We’re looking at emerging technologies and the future of work,” said Rick Usher, assistant city manager, Kansas City. “Cities can engage these technologies, but there’s the question: Do cities put the needs of workers first and minimise the impacts on jobs and the community?”
In one example, Usher noted that electric scooters have caught on in many US cities and near college campuses, but KC has noticed that very few of the scooters have ended up in more economically disadvantaged neighbourhoods on the east side.
“Automation can make these problems worse, or at least it can if we don’t put the needs of economically distressed residents first in the thoughts of policy-makers.”
“Automation can make these problems worse, or at least it can if we don’t put the needs of economically distressed residents first in the thoughts of policy-makers,” he said.
In Racine, Wisconsin, about 22 miles south of Milwaukee, lessons have been learned from the 1980s recession, which devastated the town’s thriving manufacturing economy as streamlined, tech-focused jobs began to take hold.
Today, the Racine area is partnering with the state of Wisconsin to “begin preparing its workforce for the digital disruption that is accelerating,” said William Martin, Chief Innovation Officer for the city.
“Clearly, automation and AI are having an increasing impact on today’s workforce,” he added, noting the use of kiosks to replace cashiers in stores and the role of mobile apps and ATMs to replace tellers in banks.
Are cities and states doing enough to address this transformational disruption?
“Are cities and states doing enough to address this transformational disruption? No. But cities like Racine are learning from previous lessons and seizing opportunities to transform themselves,” Martin added.
The Racine area stands to be a big beneficiary of future job creation thanks to a $10 billion investment by tech manufacturing giant Foxconn Technology Group, which has pledged to employ up to 13,000 workers. Foxconn has already bought two downtown Racine buildings to become an Innovation Center and Smart Cities solutions space.
Martin called those investments “game-changing.” Area colleges and universities have already begun to design new accredited certificates and two-year college degrees that are aligned with the new skills Foxconn needs.
Attracting new companies like Foxconn to an area can be an economic godsend, but it isn’t something every community can accomplish. Martin credited state officials for investing in the creation of new industries, in much the same way that South Carolina attracted auto-maker BMW, even though the state had few auto-manufacturing jobs previously.
Racine and the state of Wisconsin were not widely known for automation, information technology or AI before Foxconn.
“Communities need not land a substantial economic investment,” Martin argued. “Cities can still compete by mapping their assets, considering sectors that would benefit from and complement them, and developing a marketing plan to attract or grow businesses and jobs.”
The state of Ohio has one of the most comprehensive approaches to preparing for AI’s impact on workers. DriveOhio, funded by the state’s Department of Transportation, is the state government’s centre for innovation and implementation of autonomous and connected vehicle technologies.
The organisation focuses on increasing safety, enhancing mobility, expanding access, improving reliability and attracting, preparing and retaining workers.
Ohio Governor Mike DeWine recently named Lt. Governor Jon Husted to serve as director of the governor’s Office of Workforce Transformation.
Because many models of cars and trucks already on the road have advanced technologies such as adaptive cruise control and Advanced Drive Assist Systems (ADAS), commercial drivers are already getting a glimpse of what’s coming with autonomous vehicles.
Commercial drivers are already getting a glimpse of what’s coming with autonomous vehicles.
“There’s plenty of ADAS testing and truck platooning,” said Rich Granger, DriveOhio’s managing director for workforce development. “Auto technology is an area that deserves more immediate attention” for its impact on workers.
Discussions are underway for how to train drivers to get a Commercial Driver’s License (CDL) in a world where drivers have less of a role, or at least a different role from today.
“There may be a need for AV endorsements” – a type of credential added to the CDL training that recognises the role of the driver, Granger said.
Potentially, truck drivers could train to remotely control truck fleets, much as some drone operators do today. Colleges might need to create “micro degrees” for people in the existing workforce to help them upscale to newer job tasks. Truck maintenance professionals will also need training for maintaining and repairing AV circuits and controls in trucks.
“For people who drive for a living, there’s potential for change, that’s very true,” Granger said. “We want to understand if drivers will drive with technical assistance or will there be a safety layer added? Can remote drivers can take over? As these vehicles are added into the transportation system, are we creating new jobs or adapting existing jobs?”
DriveOhio hasn’t calculated the driving jobs that could be lost due to AVs in the state, but relies on several national studies, including the June 2018 SAFE report, Preparing US Workers and Employers for an Autonomous Vehicle Future.
The study found that the introduction of AVs could directly eliminate up to 2.3 million workers’ jobs over the next 30 years in the US.
“I’m very sensitive to people who worry about their jobs,” Granger said. “They wonder, what’s going to happen to my exact job. We try to get down to that ground level, while watching the trends in the clouds.”
The biggest silver lining with AVs is the potential to “help move the needle on safety numbers,” he added. Ohio alone has about 300,000 vehicle crashes and 1,100 traffic fatalities annually.
Analyst firm Gartner has calculated that the business impact from AI innovations will create 2.3 million jobs while abolishing 1.8 million in coming years, which is more optimistic than most other studies on the subject.
Bettina Tratz-Ryan, a Gartner analyst focused on smart communities, said there has been a focus on embedding new digital capabilities like AI in the hands of the “knowledge community". Unfortunately, “this focus lacks a connection to the general public,” she added.
“The perception of citizens that they have no control or little say about the digital effects on their daily life should concern leaders responsible for smart city development,” Tratz-Ryan added.
"The perception of citizens that they have no control or little say about the digital effects on their daily life should concern leaders responsible for smart city development."
“When systems become connected and manage themselves, what will happen to thousands of jobs of public servants and public works employees when coin collection for parking meters will be replaced by a mobile app? When automation and robotics enter the workplace, augmenting and replacing different kinds of manual labour, the issues around fear of digital progress are high,” she said.
Tratz-Ryan argued that cities need to show their citizens the impact of new technologies, instead of just showing off the technology. “The question is whether there’s a digital understanding among all citizens and not only the ones that are technically or digitally interested,” she said.
She lauded cities such as Bilbao in Spain and Dubai in the UAE for their efforts to begin to build a city-wide understanding of technology and a trust in how it can support residents and businesses.
“In Tampere, Finland, the entire city is an innovation lab, in which citizens together with research labs and ecosystem partners learn and experience new services based on technology,” Tratz-Ryan added.
AI innovations will affect citizens in various ways, including how they earn their living. Cities must look to the future, assess the impact of technological shifts and make plans to adapt in partnership with citizens.
You might also like: