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OPINION

Prepare for the AI revolution

Leaders must harness AI and other advances to democratize access to tech opportunities and prepare people for the 25 million digital jobs expected in America by 2025.

A Kendall Square billboard heralded the growth of AI Alley, Cambridge's burgeoning artificial intelligence community, in 1987.George Rizer/Globe Staff/The Boston Globe

Since the launch of ChatGPT in November, there’s been a lot of talk from tech leaders, members of Congress, and Americans across the country about what this new technology and the quickly evolving artificial intelligence landscape will mean for the future of our schools and work. The anxiety from students and workers who fear losing their jobs to artificial intelligence is real. But while this technology has progressed, that doesn’t mean it has to eliminate jobs.

Instead of being passive observers while tech reshapes the economy, American leaders across government, labor, education, and the private sector must harness AI and other advances to democratize access to tech opportunities and prepare people for the 25 million digital jobs expected in America by 2025. As studies show, humans and AI can achieve goals better when working together than either can on their own.

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On a recent trip to Pennsylvania, Iowa, and South Carolina, I saw firsthand the opportunities that technology can provide. I was there because of a program I facilitated with Google, local government officials, community colleges, historically Black colleges and universities, and Hispanic-serving institutions to train and place students in well-paying tech jobs after graduation. Called TechWise, it’s a free 18-month program that provides students with a $5,000 stipend, 10 hours of training a week, and mentorship from current Google employees. Eight colleges across the country have participated in the program, from Manchester, N.H., to Reno.

More than 200 students have benefitted from the program to date with an average cost of $10,000 per student, paid for by Google. It’s small, but the results have been meaningful, often in unexpected ways. In rural Pennsylvania, I spoke with a transwoman named Fionnlagh Jones about the economic opportunities the program provided, helping her go from making $20,000 a year to more than $60,000 a year. But even more meaningful was how the program created for her a safe space and a way to contribute to her community. I met moms in Iowa pushing back on the “tech bro” trope who spoke eloquently about what it meant to them to have a digital job that offered benefits like remote work and flexible hours. At the last stop on the trip, I heard from young Black future entrepreneurs in South Carolina eager to start their own companies. Until participating in this program, they hadn’t been given a chance to act on this ambition.

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If Google scales the program up to 1,000 students, it will cost $10 million a year, which can be financed by private industry including traditional manufacturers like General Motors, IBM, and General Electric that can benefit from skilled tech workers. After all, it’s not just the Googles and Microsofts of the world that need tech workers. Jones’s job isn’t at a traditional tech company — it’s at a nearby T-shirt manufacturing company.

Schools, city governments, hospitals, and even media will increasingly rely more and more on technology to enhance jobs we don’t ordinarily think of as tech jobs. Already, home health care workers are beginning to rely on AI to remind patients to take their medication, monitor chronic conditions, and transcribe progress updates and patient summaries. For newspapers and lawyers, AI can work similarly to help journalists compile research or automatically transcribe audio from videos.

Now, think bigger. For this program to help 100,000 students, it would cost a $1 billion a year. This would be a worthwhile investment for the federal government to make in its STEM workforce and youth and could be part of existing federal investments in workforce training. We are undeniably in an era in which technology shapes every aspect of our lives, and the program has already proven that it can produce tangible results. It’s not just throwing money around. It’s already showing results because it has local stakeholders, an engaged private sector, mentorship for students, innovative educators, and a credential that leads to a job. It’s a movement that will engage rural America, the Black South, cities, educators, private companies, tech leaders, and civic leaders. Everyone in this country has a role to play in it.

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By expanding technological jobs nationwide through public and private partnerships, the United States can strengthen every sector of the economy. Americans can also begin to repair the fractured, distrusting relationships that have plagued our country for so long. President Barack Obama helped unite people through hope. I believe what is most within reach in these polarized times is to have people work together and begin to find unity through economic prosperity.

The TechWise program represents just one small piece of my large economic vision, which I call a new economic patriotism, to invest in the industries of the future and restore our manufacturing and production leadership. We can bring prosperity and agency to places and communities that haven’t known that before.

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The Black community was left out of the agricultural revolution and the industrial revolution. Rural factory towns have been left behind by globalization that sent US jobs overseas. Women and caretakers have not been fully incorporated into the corporate world. Now, we are at the beginning of a new revolution. Shame on us if we fail to include all Americans in the digital revolution.

Ro Khanna is a Democratic US representative from Silicon Valley.