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What Democratic candidates for president got right—and wrong—when they spoke about the future of work

Democratic presidential candidates, author Marianne Williamson, former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, entrepreneur Andrew Yang, South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg, former Vice President Joe Biden, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., former Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet, and Rep. Eric Swalwell, D-Calif., listen to a question during a Democratic primary debate hosted by NBC News at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts, Thursday, June 27, 2019, in Miami. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)

As artificial intelligence and automation become more sophisticated and more ubiquitous, people are becoming more and more concerned that they could soon lose their jobs to a machine, according to a new, international poll by Northeastern University and Gallup

This anxiety spilled over onto the political scene in the U.S., when Democratic candidates for president sparred over what should be done to prepare people for such workplace disruption, as well as the merits of universal basic income at the second of two televised debates Thursday.

The new poll, released this week, shows that nearly 88 percent of those in the U.S. think that there’s a threat of job loss from the growing adoption of artificial intelligence.

 The poll shows, too, that people don’t feel they’ve been adequately prepared to adapt to this new reality. Fewer than 10 percent of people said that their undergraduate education will provide the skills they’ll need when artificial intelligence displaces people from their jobs, and 65 percent of respondents cited cost as a major barrier they face when seeking education or training to fill the gaps left by their undergraduate education.

 The results illuminate a particular quagmire—people know they’ll need new skills to compete in a work environment that’s rapidly moving toward artificial intelligence, but believe they can’t afford to pay for the education they’ll need, especially if they lose their jobs to automation in the meantime.

 It’s a problem that Democratic candidate Andrew Yang discussed during Thursday’s presidential debate. Yang, an entrepreneur, is running on a signature policy that would provide a universal basic income for adults in the U.S. His plan is to give everyone over the age of 18 in the U.S. $1,000 a month as a bulwark against the changing job market caused by automation.

“This is the move that we have to make, particularly as technology is now automating away millions of American jobs,” he said during the debate.

His idea, however, doesn’t have as much support in the U.S. as it might in the United Kingdom or Canada, according to the Northeastern-Gallup poll.

In the U.S., only 43 percent of people support a universal basic income program as a way to help people who’ve lost their jobs because of advances in artificial intelligence. By comparison, three-quarters of Canadians and U.K. residents support such a plan, according to the poll.

Other candidates Thursday acknowledged the growing anxiety over automation, and offered different ways to address it.

“We must always be a county where technology creates more jobs than it displaces. And I have seen the anxiety across America where the manufacturing floors go from 1,000 to 100 to one,” said Eric Swalwell, a U.S. Representative from California who is also running for president. He suggested investing in schools and eliminating student debt for teachers as ways to prepare workers for the artificial intelligence age.

“We have to modernize our schools, value the teachers who prepare our kids, wipe the student debt from any teacher that goes into a community that needs it, invest in America’s communities, especially places where the best exports are people who move away to get skills,” he said.

Former Vice President Joseph Biden also emphasized the importance of education in preparing workers for the future.

“We can’t put people in a position where they aren’t able to go on and move on,” he said. “And so, folks, there is a lot we can do, but we have to make continuing education available for everyone so that everyone can compete in the 21st century.”

 According to the Northeastern-Gallup poll, only 22 percent of people in the U.S. think that universities are doing a good job “preparing students for jobs of the future.”

For media inquiries, please contact media@northeastern.edu.

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