Free trade and CS

Economists generally agree that free trade agreements between countries such as the U.S. and Mexico or China that have complimentary strengths result in a net benefit to both sides. But this doesn’t mean that every individual citizen benefits. There are definitely winners and losers, and as we have seen in this election, the losers are anything but “happy campers”.

NAFTA’s effect on U.S. employment  has probably been something between a modest gain to a loss of several hundred thousand U.S. jobs. The effect of trade with China has probably been greater, resulting in a loss of perhaps a million or more jobs. But both of these effects  are likely to be much smaller than the result of the U.S.’s completely unregulated trade with a different country, one that has no labor protections and whose workers work very long hours for very low wages.

I am talking about the “Nation of AI”. According to the Bureau  of Labor and Statistics,  in the U.S. there are 3.85 million drivers (of trucks, buses, taxis, etc..), 3.5 million cashiers, 2.6 million customer service representatives, and many other people working in jobs that could be automated in the near future. It is sometimes said that “routine” jobs are the ones most at risk, but perhaps a better term for this is quantifiable jobs. If your job consists of performing well-defined tasks that have a clear criteria of success (like “getting from point A to point B”) then it is at risk of first being “Uberized” (or “M-Turk’ed”)  and then automated. After all, optimizing well defined objectives is what computers do best.

Of course, like other trade deals and technological advances in the past, it could well be that the the eventual net effect of artificial intelligence on human employment is zero or even positive. But it will undoubtedly involve shifting of jobs, and, especially if it happens on a short time scale, many people whose jobs are eliminated would be unable to acquire the skills for obtaining the jobs that are created.

Understanding how to deal with this (arguably more realistic) type of “AI risk” is a grand challenge on the interface of Economics and Computer Science, as well as many other areas. Like other questions of incentives, privacy, fairness, and others, I believe theoretical computer science can and should play some role in addressing this challenge.


3 thoughts on “Free trade and CS

  1. important topic, need to blog on this some more, have many diverse refs & need to collect them, but ran across here a quality recent review by top CS theorists who agree this is a substantial/ significant topic/ concern/ issue etc for the field (alas kind of unheralded/ buried). the old (historical) pattern/ canard that “new jobs will be created” is not always so reassuring.

    see pdf slides by Kumar, Mataric, Mitchell, Vardi
    Humans, Machines, and the Future of Work (Superior B)

  2. Hi Boaz

    It would be interesting to hear your ideas —however preliminary—on how theoretical CS can address such issues. Labor economics is a highly specialized field and these issues are far afield from mechanism design kinds of questions studied in theory so far.

    I believe the snowbird link is on a general panel discussion, not concrete research agenda.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s