SAN FRANCISCO (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - The impact of artificial intelligence on labor has been the focus of much discussion and debate - but could AI be responsible for the biggest threat to global labour markets?

The intersection of AI and the digital revolution could lead to labour shortages, more workers from the most vulnerable backgrounds entering the workforce and a new surplus of workers competing with low-skilled foreign workers, said Rahul Dixit, a senior economist with the International Labour Organization (ILO).

“The debate has been very heterogeneous: it has been about the displacement of jobs or replacing jobs with machines or artificial intelligence,” Dixit told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

“But the biggest, most transformative impact will probably be caused by two things: the acceleration of digitalization in production, and the introduction of robots.”

AI is changing how we work, with workers shifting from physical labour to digital work. One use of the technology is in transportation, as autonomous vehicle developments are speeding up.

The ILO, which researches worker issues worldwide, is hosting its first post-prediction Unconference to showcase its work on the topic in four days of debates, panel discussions and training.

“The majority of the public doesn’t understand what AI is, and what it will mean for jobs, people’s livelihoods,” said Lindsay Chapman, a technology scholar at the U.S. think tank Niskanen Center.

Chapman will debate at the conference whether the current rollout of driverless cars will hurt or help the majority of transportation workers.

“There is no shortage of optimistic cases where a lot of jobs will be replaced or outsourced to AI - but I don’t think there are any other technologies that have the potential to displace 100 million jobs, or change the balance of global wealth and job competition, in as little time,” she said.

Dixit sees the impact on distribution of global wealth - particularly of information technology - as the biggest threat.

“The biggest challenge for people coming into this technology is that there may be opportunities but they’re really not as attractive as the alternatives,” Dixit said.

IT experts debating the technology’s impact include software engineers, researchers and industry figures, such as Noah Smith, chief economist at Barclays in the United States.

He will argue that increasing income inequality is a natural consequence of a digital world in which consumers, not producers, control the flow of capital.

“It’s true we have an old-fashioned labour market and we will get that,” Smith said in an interview ahead of the forum.

“But it’s also true that we are no longer bound by a traditional income distribution in which workers have an inalienable wage.”

The rise of a digital economy is taking a particularly harmful toll on people from marginalized groups, with the prospect of large numbers of “ill-prepared” workers entering the labor market fuelling further inequality and social conflict, said Dixit.