Steady bouts of economic change are a given, but can automation increase opioid addiction?

Stories of economic change—the bread and butter of any business publication—can be found throughout this issue. Our cover story tracks the cultural, demographic and technological forces bearing down on the United Way of Central Ohio. There are also tales of disruption in the logistics industry, as well as in a considerably more obscure field.

Until it went out of business in early March, the Bron-Shoe Co. on the East Side of Columbus was one of the city's most delightful businesses: the go-to spot for bronzing baby shoes—and plenty of other odd and fascinating trinkets.

These changes, though difficult, are not unexpected. They drive our economy, the thinking goes, making us more efficient while also creating new opportunities for workers and entrepreneurs. We're undoubtedly better off today with a single farmer feeding 155 people rather than three, the figure from 1800. And there's a reason the Luddites—displaced textile workers who smashed cotton gins in Great Britain during the early 1800s—have faded into history. Though their name lives on as a synonym for technophobes, the specifics of their movement have been forgotten as new jobs replaced the lost trade of separating seeds from cotton. And that transfer has generally remained true through other advancements of the past two centuries. New opportunities flourish, incomes rise, and few lament the loss of candlestick makers, bowling alley pinsetters, even baby-shoe bronzers (sigh).

But could the age of automation and AI be different, with the new generation of machines able to handle more complicated cognitive tasks? Will the disruption be more damaging to the workplace as the impact extends beyond hamburger flippers and truck drivers to professions such as lawyers, airline pilots and—gulp—business journalists? (The Associated Press has experimented with a bot that writes articles about quarterly earning reports.) In this issue, Columbus CEO contributor Mike Mahoney offers an interesting case study, which looks at the impact artificial intelligence is having on radiology.

Ohio State economist Michael Betz recently explored these questions in a fascinating presentation hosted by The Risk Institute, part of the OSU Fisher College of Business. He says economists have become engaged again with the idea of technological change. “For a long time, it was just a settled matter: technological change is a good thing; it's not going to cause mass unemployment,” says Betz, an assistant professor in the Department of Human Sciences. “But recently, economists have begun to ask the question, ‘Is something different about the digital revolution, where we're now interacting with artificial intelligence and very complex robots, where it might be different than the previous few hundred years of technological growth?' ”

Economists appear divided on that question. “Right now, there's maybe a 50/50 split,” he says. “Some think this is going to be a hugely disruptive thing ... we're going to face a very disruptive change where robots and technology are going to cause mass unemployment. And there is another group, probably about half, that are much more sanguine and believe that the trends that have happened over the past 100 years are going to continue and people are going to be able to find different things to do.”

In particular, Betz is interested in how opioids fit into the equation. He and a colleague have a paper under review showing that growth in low-paying jobs is a predictor of high overdose rates. To be sure, Betz acknowledges that the ongoing opioid crisis is multi-faceted, with the increase in the supply of pain pills, heroin and synthetic opioids like fentanyl and carfentanil playing a major role. Folks who might have turned to alcohol in the past are now turning to much more dangerous drugs—and the results are horrifying. Overdoses are now the leading cause of death for Ohioans under the age of 55, Betz says.

“It seems like local economic conditions, mental health and relational isolation are like the tinder, the supply chain creates the match, and now we have the bonfire,” he says.