Scott J. Sternberg
Executive Director, Boulder Economic Council
How vulnerable is Boulder to the AI Revolution?
With the proliferation of Artificial Intelligence (AI) tools and the rapid increase in user adoption, AI has taken center stage in discussions surrounding the future of work. As much of the dialog might be emotional in nature, a more traditional economic development model, based on data and trends, might serve as the best indicator we have for any potential local AI impacts.
AI is defined as a computer system or algorithm capable of performing tasks that normally require either human intelligence or interaction. This can include both creative and diagnostic tasks. In some cases, AI might even replace physical work. In these ways, AI parallels other groundbreaking technological developments throughout history which challenged the belief that certain tasks are “computer proof.” No wonder there is a growing fear among workers in certain industries that their jobs will succumb to the siren song of AI.
For Boulder County’s job market, the impact of AI is far more nuanced.
A 2022 US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) report on AI job trends identified 27 occupations that could either be directly or indirectly vulnerable to AI. By combining the analysis from the BLS with the Boulder Chamber’s comprehensive in-house labor market data, we get a clearer picture of near-term AI impacts. In raw numeric terms, this analysis suggests an approximate total of 32,000 individuals engaged in industries and jobs that might be influenced by AI.
Those are concerning figures when one views our current workforce circumstances through the prism of an “economic pie” that is fixed in size. This zero-sum economic perspective leads to the assumption that jobs (or “work”) can only be redistributed and not created. That is, your gain is my loss. While this line of thinking may have some short run validity, in the long run, the “economic pie” grows as worker productivity, population growth, and increased demand spur economic growth.
How does artificial intelligence grow the economic pie? Primarily through increasing productivity. For example, a paralegal can use AI to quickly read and summarize a contract, or a software programmer can deploy AI-developed code to debug their work, increasing the efficiency and accuracy of otherwise menial and time-consuming tasks. In those cases, AI tools can free workers to better tackle more complex problems, leading to increasing productivity. In this same way, AI can also create the space for greater innovation, leading to the creation of new industries and associated economic expansion.
Fears of technology-induced unemployment have been an element of economic and social discourse since the luddites conspired to destroy cost-saving machinery in textile mills. The fears most frequently are overblown and the effects typically more gradual, providing the opportunity for labor force redeployment to other, even more productive opportunities. In that same way, AI could result in the
short-term loss of jobs in certain fields, but most likely will lead to a longer-term expansion of the economic pie for everyone’s benefit.
Even more comforting, the Boulder Economic Council conducted a straw poll of Boulder Chamber members regarding AI impacts. We asked participants whether AI is competitive or complementary to their current work. Three out of four employee respondents revealed that they believe AI will be complementary to their current work responsibilities. In other words, a strong majority of our workforce doesn’t feel compelled to join forces with the luddites, seeing AI as more of an opportunity than a threat.
With all this said, we cannot ignore the impact AI will have on both our society and economy. We must continue to focus on intentional workforce development programming that addresses potential threats of AI to our labor markets. At the same time, we will continue to encourage our innovators, business leaders and research scientists to explore and implement new ways to perform menial tasks, providing our workforce with the opportunity to focus on areas where the human element is a sustainable advantage.
I am grateful to Louis Rosner, Economic Data Analyst at the Boulder Chamber, for his contributions to this article.
To view our full report, go to https://bouldereconomiccouncil.org/news/category/bec-news/.