We hear the dire warnings: The rise of artificial intelligence could take an untold number of jobs away from American workers.

But a new report from a Pennsylvania-based think tank argues that a very different future is possible. With the right policies, this new study says, AI could potentially help usher in a future of wide prosperity.

“The United States can have both rapid, wealth-creating, productivity-enhancing innovation and a more equal society,” reads the report. “These are not in tension, notwithstanding claims to the contrary by free-enterprise myth-makers.”

The report, entitled “Towards an AI Economy That Works for All,” was published today by The Keystone Research Center, a non-partisan think tank based in Harrisburg that provides independent analysis of state budgets, taxes and related policy matters.

This research is the first in a series of studies being done by the Center’s Future of Work project, funded by The Heinz Endowments.

Authors Stephen Herzenberg and John Alic do acknowledge the potential for artificial intelligence to displace millions of workers. They write that “evolving forms of AI threaten not only workers in lower-paid occupations but promise to take over some of the responsibilities of those in well-paid occupations such as medicine and law.”

But speaking to reporters during the launch of the report on Thursday, Herzenberg said “Technology is not the primary driver of inequality. Policies are the primary driver of inequality.”

Rather than millions of truck drivers losing their jobs to self-driving rigs overnight, the authors say the greater threat lies in AI’s potential to compound and reinforce some of the most troubling trends of the modern economy, such as inequality and stagnating wages. (AI’s potential inequality issues, as we reported recently, are a driving force behind the new Pittsburgh AI chapter.)

“AIs, many observers feel, will be used to kick the American worker when she’s down,” says the report. “The only way to head off such outcomes is through policies aimed at more equitable outcomes — starting with rebalancing the scales between employers and employees.”

What might that mean?

Specific recommendations include strengthening employee protections, expanding antitrust law so no one data rich company can monopolize a given sector, and a federal job guarantee program modeled after The New Deal’s Civilian Conservation Corps to tackle infrastructure and green design.

The report is only the first of several studies on AI impacts that the Keystone Research Center will produce in the coming year. The next entry will dive into recommendations for specific industries.

“Let’s spend less time predicting the future,” said Herzenberg, “and more time getting the policies right.”

While the recommendations in the report would entail a radical shift from the dominant economic policies of the last several decades, the authors point out that similar ideas are already finding their way into the political mainstream.

Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez made a jobs guarantee a key plank of her successful campaign, and likely 2020 Presidental candidates Bernie Sanders, Cory Booker and Kirsten Gillibrand have all endorsed the idea.

Bill O'Toole

Bill O'Toole was a full-time reporter for NEXTpittsburgh until October, 2019. He previously reported in Myanmar.