Chairman Yarmuth Opening Statement at Virtual Hearing on Impacts of Artificial Intelligence on the Workforce & Our Economic Recovery

Sep 10, 2020

Washington, D.C.— Kentucky Congressman John Yarmuth, Chairman of the House Budget Committee, gave the following opening statement at today’s virtual hearing examining the potential benefits and pitfalls of artificial intelligence (AI) and automation technologies as we seek to improve public health, revitalize the economy, and support American workers in the aftermath of the pandemic. Remarks as prepared are below:

This year, Labor Day felt very different than previous years. While most of us still honored our workers and celebrated their vital contributions to our nation – especially our frontline workers – we also recognized the hardships faced by millions of laid-off Americans and their families, struggling to get by amid a global pandemic and the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression.

Yet these twin crises have amplified problems that existed long before the coronavirus: devastating health care inequities, the loss of stable, well-paying jobs, and stagnating wages. While our economy has slowed – exacerbating these underlying issues – technological change has marched on, creating even more challenges.

As we look to the future, artificial intelligence (or AI) has significant potential to disrupt the world. It presents opportunities to improve lives, livelihoods, productivity, and equality. However, it also poses serious risks of large-scale economic changes. Today’s hearing will help us ground our thinking in facts and better prepare for this impending economic transition.

Like the arrival of the steam engine, electricity, and computers, AI will reshape a broad swath of industries and jobs. However, history shows us that while technological advancements can create new jobs and increase productivity and growth, these benefits have been paired with the elimination of old jobs and increased inequality as some workers are left behind. 

Today we are losing jobs because of the Administration’s failed response to the pandemic and economic crisis. But as the economy eventually recovers, workers may find it difficult to get their job back as companies replace jobs with new AI-enabled automation. So, while advancements in AI technologies could create more opportunities for workers with advanced education or specialized skills, workers without these skills could see fewer opportunities in the near future. And it’s low- and middle-wage jobs that are most at risk.

Since the mid-1980s, but prior to the pandemic, 88 percent of middle-skill job losses – associated with the automation of routine tasks – took place within 12 months of a recession. Absent concerted efforts to foster an inclusive recovery, AI and automation could exacerbate income inequality, widen racial and gender income gaps, and push more people into poverty when we eventually emerge from this recession. There is already a large and persistent racial wealth gap in America, and, since Black and Latino Americans are overrepresented in occupations at high risk for automation, they are disproportionately at risk of job and wage losses. Additionally, there are 40 percent more women than men who work in occupations at high risk for automation. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) estimates that AI and automation could eliminate upwards of 14 percent of today’s jobs and disrupt an additional 32 percent.

Current AI technologies have also raised concerns around replicating human biases and discrimination in algorithms. Given the range of AI applications emerging in employment, housing, health care, financial services, and criminal justice, improved transparency and oversight are needed to ensure AI tools do not replicate or expand discriminatory practices.

Just like previous technological breakthroughs, AI will broadly impact the federal budget. Along with IT modernization, AI can directly improve the efficiency and effectiveness of government operations, leading to savings. With the industry set to generate additional economic activity of up to $13 trillion worldwide by 2030, federal R&D investments will remain essential to U.S. leadership and competitiveness in AI technology. However, the benefits will only be available to all Americans if paired with strategic investments to support our workforce through this impending evolution.

The pandemic and economic crisis have already shown that income security and related programs are crucial for supporting Americans during challenging times. The shifting job landscape expected with widespread AI implementation further demonstrates this need. This will require strong federal investments in social programs, in affordable health care, child care, and housing, as well as new approaches for retraining and upskilling our workforce. IBM estimates that between 2019 and 2022, more than 120 million workers in the world’s 12 largest economies may need to be retrained and reskilled as a result of AI-enabled automation.

If we fail to plan ahead, the underlying problems illuminated by the pandemic and recession will continue to create barriers to success for American workers. We have a responsibility to get Americans through the COVID crises, but we also must address the long-term economic challenges we know are coming.

These issues are complicated and nuanced, but that’s why we are here today. With the help of our expert witnesses, we can begin to chart a path forward that leads to inclusive economic growth, broad societal benefits, and a better-prepared workforce. I look forward to learning more about the magnitude of the potential changes to our economy and job market, and the federal policies that will be needed in response.

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