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Analysis Artificial Intelligence and Covid-19

Covid-19 driven advances in automation and artificial intelligence risk exacerbating economic inequality

BMJ 2021; 372 doi: (Published 16 March 2021) Cite this as: BMJ 2021;372:n367

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  1. Anton Korinek, associate professor1,
  2. Joseph E Stiglitz, professor2
  1. 1Department of Economics and Darden School of Business, University of Virginia, Charlottesville, VA, USA
  2. 2Columbia University, New York, NY, USA
  1. Correspondence to: A Korinek akorinek{at}

Anton Korinek and Joseph E Stiglitz make the case for a deliberate effort to steer technological advances in a direction that enhances the role of human workers

The covid-19 pandemic has necessitated interventions that reduce physical contact among people, with dire effects on our economy. By some estimates, a quarter of all jobs in the economy require physical interaction and are thus directly affected by the pandemic. This is highly visible in the medical sector, where workers and patients often come into close contact with each other and risk transmitting disease. In several countries medical workers have experienced some of the highest incidences of covid-19. Moreover, as patients were advised to postpone non-essential visits and procedures, medical providers in many countries have also experienced tremendous income losses.1

In economic language, covid-19 has added a “shadow cost” on labour that requires proximity. This shadow cost reflects the dollar equivalent of all the costs associated with the increased risk of disease transmission, including the costs of the adaptations required for covid-19. It consists of losses of both quality adjusted life days from increased morbidity and quality adjusted life years from increased mortality, as well as the cost of measures to reduce these risks, such as extra protective equipment and distancing measures for workers. Some sectors will incur increased costs from changing the physical arrangements in which production and other interactions occur so that there can be social distancing. It is, of course, understandable that we take these measures to reduce the spread of the disease: by some estimates, the social cost of one additional case of covid-19 over the course of the pandemic is $56 000 (£40 000; €46 000) to $111 000.2

This shadow cost on labour is also accelerating the development and adoption of new technologies to automate human work. One example …

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