Policymakers ‘flying blind’ as robotics takes over jobs

Workers around the world are worried that the rise of robotics and artificial intelligence (AI) will take away their job and policymakers lack the information necessary to address their concerns, a newly-published paper suggests.

The study, entitled ‘Information Technology and the US Workforce: Where Are We and Where Do We Go From Here?’ is issued by the US National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine (NASEM) and a related commentary by the co-authors is published by the journal Nature.

“Policymakers are flying blind into what has been called the fourth industrial revolution,” said Tom Mitchell, the E. Fredkin University Professor in the Carnegie Mellon University School of Computer Science and Erik Brynjolfsson, the Schussel Family Professor in the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Sloan School of Management, co-chairs of the NASEM study.

The authors recommend that government agencies collect different kinds of employment data to accurately assess and predict how computer and robotic technologies will affect the workplace. Failure to do so could result in missed opportunities and, in a worst case scenario, could prove disastrous.

Professor Brynjolfsson was among the first to highlight the risk posed to many jobs by advanced robotics and AI, in an earlier book he co-authored with colleague Andrew McAfee called ‘The Second Machine Age’. He is less pessimistic that many commentators, arguing instead that many jobs will change and new ones will be created.

However, he warns that the jobs upheaval is already causing greater inequality and social strain and that without a better understanding of the forces at work, governments will not be positioned to deal adequately with the fallout. “The irony of our information age is that despite the flood of online data, decision makers all too often lack timely, relevant information,” the new study warns.

Information technology, AI and robotics are set to impact on occupations, but how that will occur for each is unclear. Many people will be displaced by technology, while the demand for other jobs will increase. New industries will be born and other as-yet-unimagined jobs will be created.

These future effects likely will be larger than have already been seen, the NASEM report says, but it’s not yet clear whether technology will expand or shrink the workforce.

“There is a dramatic shortage of information and data about the exact state of the workforce and automation, so policymakers don’t know answers to even basic questions such as ‘Which types of technologies are currently having the greatest impacts on jobs?’ and ‘What new technologies are likely to have the greatest impact in the next few years?’” said Mitchell.

Prof Brynjolfsson noted that potential new sources of information include that held by companies such as Uber, offering insights into the conditions of ‘contingent’ workers who depend on new digital platforms for work. Official employment surveys do not ask the questions needed to understand this new and rapidly growing workforce.

Other useful sources include professional network LinkedIn and jobs sites, which could be tapped to develop a picture of which skills are in demand as automation cuts through the workforce, as well as where the new opportunities are arising. That could be used to direct retraining and other support to where it is most needed, the co-authors say.

The NASEM study suggests that schools could prepare students for a constantly changing workforce by focusing on the uniquely human characteristics that could differentiate people from machines in the workplace, and emphasise training in fields expected to drive the future economy.

In their Nature commentary, Mitchell and Brynjolfsson go further, calling for the government to create an integrated information strategy to combine public and privately held data.

“Governments must learn the lessons that industry has learned over the past decade, about how to take advantage of the exploding volume of online, real-time data to design more attractive products and more effective management policies,” Mitchell said.

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