How One Tech Skeptic Decided AI Might Benefit the Middle Class

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David Autor, an M.I.T. economist and tech contrarian, argues that A.I. is fundamentally different from past waves of computerization.

David Autor seems an unlikely A.I. optimist. The labor economist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology is best known for his in-depth studies showing how much technology and trade have eroded the incomes of millions of American workers over the years.

But Mr. Autor is now making the case that the new wave of technology — generative artificial intelligence, which can produce hyper-realistic images and video and convincingly imitate humans’ voices and writing — could reverse that trend.

“A.I., if used well, can assist with restoring the middle-skill, middle-class heart of the U.S. labor market that has been hollowed out by automation and globalization,” Mr. Autor wrote in a National Bureau of Economic Research paper published in February.

Mr. Autor’s stance on A.I. looks like a stunning conversion for a longtime expert on technology’s work force casualties. But he said the facts had changed and so had his thinking. Modern A.I., Mr. Autor said, is a fundamentally different technology, opening the door to new possibilities. It can, he continued, change the economics of high-stakes decision-making so more people can take on some of the work that is now the province of elite, and expensive, experts like doctors, lawyers, software engineers and college professors. And if more people, including those without college degrees, can do more valuable work, they should be paid more, lifting more workers into the middle class.

The researcher, whom The Economist once called “the academic voice of the American worker,” started his career as a software developer and a leader of a computer-education nonprofit before switching to economics — and spending decades examining the impact of technology and globalization on workers and wages.

Mr. Autor, 59, was an author of an influential study in 2003 that concluded that 60 percent of the shift in demand favoring college-educated workers over the previous three decades was attributable to computerization. Later research examined the role of technology in wage polarization and in skewing employment growth toward low-wage service jobs.

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