How will Advances in Technology affect Work and Jobs?

From my LinkedIn blog:

Much has been written about the impact of advances in information technology, artificial intelligence, automation, and robotics on work and jobs. These technological advances have eliminated certain categories of jobs, enabled off-shoring and distribution of work, and have also created jobs that did not exist before. The negative impact on those who lose their occupations and work has been devastating and has fueled intense political and social upheaval. Rising inequality, due to multiple causes ranging from technological disruptions, globalization, and economic and social policies, is a topic of great concern worldwide.

A recent (preliminary) report Information Technology and the U.S. Workforce from the National Research Council analyzes these issues, draws several interesting conclusions, and makes several recommendations. For example, it concludes, “These advances in technology will result in automation of some jobs, augmentation of workers’ abilities to perform others, and the creation of still others. The ultimate effects of information technology are determined not just by technical capabilities, but also by how the technology is used and how individuals, organizations, and policy makers prepare for or respond to associated shifts in the economic or social landscape.”

I found the recommendation around the nature of technology choices most stimulating. In particular, this report recommends research efforts that, “Target a deeper understanding of how choices about technology use or functionality can affect the workforce in order to inform the design of technologies and policies that will benefit workers, the economy, and society at large.”

This is a crucially important observation. While technological progress cannot be controlled, it is important that we understand the choices that influence its development. These choices are made by individuals, companies, government and society. And ultimate adoption and success is driven by many factors beyond control of any single entity. But by achieving a deeper and more transparent understanding of the possible choices, we can make have a better insight into their impacts. And for those of us in academic institutions, educating future engineers, scientists, and broader communities of students will be very important.

Let us consider the future of autonomous cars and trucks. This technology has its roots in prior academic research and is currently undergoing rapid progress in the private sector. It offers great potential in saving lives and making the transportation system more efficient and productive. At the same time, there is the possibility that many people might lose their jobs. What are the choices that are being made in developing this technology? Are there technology choices between those that assist human drivers versus those replacing them?

In a recent recode interview, the veteran New York Times technology reporter John Markoff stated, “I saw this dichotomy between machines that replace humans and machines that extend the power of humans. That’s been basically the dichotomy in our industry ever since, this was going back to the very dawn of interactive computing in the early 1960s. McCarthy on one side of the lab at Stanford and Englebart on the other. One wanted to replace the human, one wanted to extend the human. The problem is when you augment human, you need fewer humans. It’s not only a dichotomy but it’s a paradox. I don’t particularly see an easy way [out of it].”

Human history suggests that technological progress and advance has both beneficial and detrimental impacts. Certainly, industrial and agricultural revolutions had profound impacts on work and jobs. Therefore, current developments in automation, robotics, artificial intelligence are likely to have positive and negative impacts in the coming years and decades. By engaging in proactive thinking on the strategic technology research and development choices, we can aim to maximize the positive impacts while managing the negative outcomes. It is exciting to see that the National Science Foundation (NSF) has identified Work at the Human-Technology Frontier: Shaping the Future as one of its 10 Big Ideas.