Robotics and artificial intelligence are retooling the workplace faster than we can make sense of it.
What should we do, for instance, with the taxi drivers and long-haul truckers who could see their livelihoods evaporate with the evolution of self-driving vehicles?
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Researchers say not only is the world changing at breakneck speed, but that sociologists and economists can’t keep up with what the fallout will mean for the workplace.
“Policymakers are flying blind into what has been called the fourth industrial revolution or the second machine age,” wrote Tom Mitchell and Erik Brynjolfsson in an essay in the journal Nature this month. “There is a remarkable lack of data available on basic questions, such as: what is the scope and rate of change of the key technologies, especially artificial intelligence (AI)? Which technologies are already eliminating, augmenting or transforming which types of jobs? What new work opportunities are emerging, and which policy options might create jobs in this context?
“At best,” the authors continue, “this paucity of information will lead to missed opportunities. At worst, it could be disastrous. If we want to understand, prepare for and guide the unpredictable impacts of advancing technology, we must radically reinvent our ability to observe and track these changes and their drivers.”
They note that industrial productivity has climbed while, since 1999, wages for the bottom 50 percent of earners have stagnated.
Automated vehicles show the impacts of technology in the possibly near future. But the present shows that clerical workers — people whose tasks can be dramatically streamlined or eliminated by old-fashioned computer word processors — have already begun to see their jobs disappear.
In 1990, roughly 26 percent of the workforce was devoted to clerical work. Today, those jobs represent barely 20 percent of the workforce.
To track what’s happening and plot strategies to find useful work for people losing their jobs to automation, Mitchell and Brynjolfsson say, society needs to deploy new measurements to understand the trends.
“The irony of our information age is that despite the flood of online data, decision-makers all too often lack timely, relevant information,” they wrote.
They said the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, for instance, needs to better log “the rise of the contingent or temporary workforce” — the gig economy that plays out through companies such as TaskRabbit or Uber — so that government and corporate planners can fully understand the changes as they happen.
The researchers suggest government borrow from tech companies by experimenting with A/B testing to lead people to their next jobs.
“The best policy for retraining displaced workers could be decided after trialling several different policies for workers within one region,” they wrote. “The policies’ different impacts on employment could be observed for a year before moving forward with the one that produces the greatest re-employment. Authorities could continue to experiment to accommodate future changes.”
Their essay was published in conjunction with a study for the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine called, “Information Technology and the U.S. Workforce: Where Are We and Where Do We Go From Here?”
In that study, the authors offer reason both for optimism and worry about the hard-to-fathom ways artificial intelligence and other technological advances might reshape the world of work.
“Advances in IT and automation will present opportunities to boost America’s overall income and wealth, improve health care, shorten the workweek, provide more job flexibility, enhance educational opportunities, develop new goods and services, and increase product safety and reliability,” the study says. “These same advances could also lead to growing inequality and decreased job stability, increasing demands on workers to change jobs, or major changes in business organization. More broadly, these technologies have important implications, both intended and unintended, in areas from education and social relationships to privacy, security, and even democracy.”