A.I. Could Widen Economic Disparity Between Urban and Rural Areas, Brookings Report Warns

February 15, 2019, 12:48 AM UTC

Among the key factors driving the economic divide in America is the rise of technology that has eliminated many jobs through automating manufacturing tasks. A new report from the Brookings Institution warns that, thanks to the rise of artificial intelligence, economic disparity between coastal cities and heartland regions is about to get even worse.

The 2016 Presidential election served as a wake-up call to the economic effect that the automation of many routine jobs is “massively rearranging the nation’s economic geography,” says the report, written by Brookings Senior Fellow Mark Muro.

“The 2016 election may go down as the first time society began to grasp the full implications of automation’s potential to transform the physical world,” Muro wrote. “As big, techy cities like New York, Washington, and the Bay Area seemed to increasingly inhabit a different world from the rest of America, the people and places that were ‘left behind’ revolted.”

Since then, the field of A.I. has made gains in developing machine-learning tools that could automate even more jobs. Brookings looked at the kinds of jobs that could be replaced by A.I. applications, namely, ones that involve more routine or repetitive work in manufacturing and service industries alike. The bottom line of jobs at risk of automation: They already pay some of the lowest wages today.

Jobs that were more vulnerable to automation were more likely to be found in rural towns like Kokomo, Ind., and Hickory, N.C., the report said, while those in coastal cities like San Jose and the District of Columbia were more likely to be safe.

“Less-educated heartland states and counties specialized in manufacturing and low-end service industries could be especially hard-hit by automation in the A.I. era, whereas well-educated states and counties along the Boston-Washington corridor and on the West Coast appear less exposed,” the report said. “In parallel fashion, smaller, less-educated communities will struggle relatively more with A.I.-phase automation, while larger, better-educated cities will experience less disruption.”

In response, Brookings urged government and industry leaders to focus on strategies such as expanding support for communities to cope with job automation and “future-proofing” workers by teaching skills that are more resilient to automation.

The report comes a few days after the Trump administration unveiled a vague A.I. initiative that will spend on artificial intelligence and train workers in computer science. Apple CEO Tim Cook and IBM CEO Ginni Rometty have joined Trump’s advisory board on A.I. and job automation.