The Economic Impact of Artificial Intelligence


Ramin Toloui

Professor of the Practice

Stanford University


Economic Policy Seminar (Econ 101)

Department of Economics

Fall Quarter 2020

Mon & Wed 1:00-2:50pm

Course Description


The objectives of this class are to provide students with:


(1) frameworks for analyzing the prospective impact of artificial intelligence/machine learning on employment, wages, inequality, industrial organization, international competition, and governance;
(2) historical and empirical perspective on the impact of technological revolutions and automation on living standards, economic activity, income distribution, and social institutions; and
(3) a structured opportunity to learn and practice a range of oral and written communication skills that are critical to future success in diverse fields.




Course objectives will be accomplished by examining the history of mechanization and automation; trends in labor market and industrial concentration in recent decades alongside IT adoption; and methods economists are using to analyze the impact of AI.  We will explore these topics through lectures, discussion sessions, and wide-ranging readingsKey requirements include:


Active participation in all class discussions (20 points). Contributing meaningfully to these discussions requires thoughtful reflection on advance readings for each class. Participation is a key determinant of the overall course grade.


Leadership of a class discussion session (12 points). Successful moderation entails effectively framing key themes to be unpacked and eliciting participation from peers.


Brief written summary of discussion sessions for three weekly readings (7 points). Reporting on meetings is a vital task in business, academia, and government – doing so effectively requires an ability to extract key points, summarize disagreements, and be succinct. (450-500 words)


Final Paper (51 points). Students will identify a question of interest, specify an approach to answering that question, and produce a comprehensive final product. Various milestones during the quarter provide opportunities to incorporate guidance from the instructor and TA: initial proposal (7501000 words, 7 points*), partial draft (12501750 words, 7 points*), full draft (25003500 words, 7 points*), and final submission + response to comments (25003500 words excluding response to comments, 30 points). For the first three submissions (marked with *), full points will be awarded as long as the assignments are submitted on time and meet specified guidelines.


Final Presentation (10 points). Students will present the key findings of their final paper to their peers in a presentation of approximately 10 minutes during the last week of the course.


Course Gameplan


Week 1:  What Do Economists Need to Know About Artificial Intelligence?

Define artificial intelligence and machine learning; explain how machine learning helps solve Polayni’s paradox and enables automation of new categories of tasks previously beyond the capabilities of machines; highlight dangers of algorithmic bias; demystify how neural networks work.


Discussion Readings


Supplementary and Technical Readings


Week 2:  A Brief History of Technological Revolutions and Living Standards
Provide an overview of the history of economic development from the agricultural revolution to the Industrial Revolution; explain how mechanization facilitated an escape from the Malthusian trap; describe worker displacement and unequal distribution of benefits (Engel’s pause) as new technologies were adopted; describe how diffusion of innovation led to new products and services that generated employment and rising living standards, epitomized by post-WWII United States.


Discussion Readings


Supplementary and Technical Readings


Week 3:  Does Technology Explain Rising Inequality Since the 1970s?
Describe the rising inequality and wage polarization that has characterized labor market patterns in the United States since the 1970s; review the key explanations for these outcomes, including (i) skill-biased technological change (SBTC) & the race between technology and education (ii) job polarization from information technology adoption; (iii) demographics; (iv) international trade and globalization; and (v) decline of labor unions.


Discussion Readings


***Paper Proposal Due - Friday, October 2 @ 11:59pm***


Supplementary and Technical Readings


Week 4:  How Has Technology Affected Productivity, Market Structure and Industrial Concentration?

Provide an overview of the changes in industrial concentration since the 1980s; review empirical work on the rise of superstar firms and implications for compensation of labor and capital; describe network effects and the economics of “winner-take-all” markets; evaluate the hypotheses to explain the puzzle of low productivity growth; analyze the potential impact of algorithms on competition.


Discussion Readings


Supplementary and Technical Readings


Week 5:  How Can We Analyze the Prospective Impact of Artificial Intelligence?
Examine the channels through which artificial intelligence may affect the demand for various types of jobs, relations between capital and labor, consumption demand for different types of goods and services, distribution of income and wealth, and the overall structure of economic activity.


Discussion Readings


Supplementary and Technical Readings


Week 6:  What are the Global Economic and Geopolitical Consequences of AI?
Analyze the potential impact of artificial intelligence on global trade patterns, paths to economic development, relationships between citizens and governments, and competition among nations.


Discussion Readings


***Partial Draft Due - Friday, October 23 @ 11:59pm***


Supplementary and Technical Readings

·       Pratt, Gill (2015). “Is a Cambrian Explosion Coming for Robotics?” Journal of Economic Perspectives, Summer, 29(3), pp. 51-60. (


Week 7:  Can Artificial Intelligence Help Solve Problems of Economics and Governance?
Examine the potential for artificial intelligence to address Baumol’s cost disease of the service sector, improve health and education, expand opportunity, and create a more inclusive society.


Discussion Readings


***October 28 – Guest Speaker: JARON LANIER***


Jaron Lanier is one of the most creative thinkers on the impact of technology on society and decisions that will shape its future. His books include Who Owns the Future?, You Are Not A GadgetDawn of the New Everything, and Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now. We look forward to welcoming him to class.


***Full Draft Due - Friday, October 30 @ 11:59pm***


Supplementary and Technical Readings


Weeks 8 and 9:  Individual Meetings to Discuss Full Drafts & Final Presentations


Week 10:  Final Presentations by Students (November 16 and 18)


***Final Paper & Response to Comments Due - Friday, November 20 @ 11:59pm***


Course Readings


All course readings are designated in the Course Gameplan section above.


Readings must be completed before the accompanying lecture/discussion. It is impossible to absorb the material and contribute meaningfully (see “Active participation in all class discussions” above) without completing the readings in advance.


All readings are available online, either through publicly available links or via online books that can be accessed through Stanford Libraries SearchWorks.


No Late Work & Other Course Policies


All courses taught in the Stanford Department of Economics are governed by a common set of course management rules. A document explaining these rules can be found on the Economics Department website at Please be sure to read this document in its entirety, and contact me if you have any questions. Note that it is your responsibility to familiarize yourself with these policies, and failure to do so does not constitute grounds for exceptions from these policies.


Late work submitted after designated deadlines will not be accepted (it will be marked as a zero).


Common Deadlines


Paper Proposal (end of Week 3) - Friday, October 2 @ 11:59pm
Partial Draft Paper (end of Week 6) - Friday, October 23 @ 11:59pm
Full Draft Paper (end of Week 7) - Friday, October 30 @ 11:59pm
Final Paper + Response to Comments (end of Week 10) - Friday, November 20 @ 11:59pm
Summary of Discussion Session - due by Friday @ 11:59pm at the end your assigned week.


Please see “Reference on Course Requirements” in the Files tab of Canvas for additional details on course requirements.


Office Hours


Ramin Toloui’s office hours will be Wednesdays 3:00-4:00pm via Zoom. Office hours for TA Brian Higgins will be Tuesdays 9:30-10:30am via Zoom.


Final Paper Idea Generation / Paper Proposal


A word of warning and preparation: the process of finding a good topic for your final paper is challenging! Getting an early start is very important, so that by Week 4 you can get down to writing rather than still refining a topic.


Start with a broad idea that you are interested in, and voraciously read/skim all you can find on it. Based on what you find, you may modify your topic or be led in a new direction.


You will likely encounter some dead ends and switchbacks. That is not wasted effort, but rather a natural part of the process.


In terms of generating some initial ideas, have a look through the syllabus for a broad selection of readings on various topics. Skim those papers, and check out their bibliographies.


Another useful resource to explore is the hub for the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER)’s work on artificial intelligence ( There you will find content presented at several conferences on economics/AI, as well as recommended papers under various topic headings.