In an Age of Automation and Artificial Intelligence, How Will We Adjust?

August 9, 2016

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The introduction of the power loom led to worker discontent in the 1900s. Will new technologies in the 21st century also disrupt the role of the worker?

Takeaways

How will America, its workplaces, and the economy adjust to artificial intelligence, robots, and automation?

In the early 19th century, English textile workers rebelled violently against the use of machinery (such as power looms and weaving machines) that put their livelihoods at risk. The United Kingdom deployed troops to put down the unrest, but strife over the economic and social effects of disruptive technology continued to rage throughout the Industrial Revolution. 

Today, the rise of Artificial Intelligence and robotics—the inevitable melding of the mechanical and digital revolutions — is sparking new anxieties about the effect of innovation on jobs, the future of work, and the economy. What does it mean when smart robots and intelligent machinery are able to perform tasks traditionally performed by people?

When the growing sweep of jobs is now subject to major, rapid change from automation (and in some cases outright obsolescence) the social implications are as consequential as the economic effects. A job is not just a way to earn life-supporting income — as crucial as that is for each of us. Work also provides a sense of personal purpose and worth — of being wanted and needed, emotional factors that play a central role in our personal and public happiness.

Workers, employers, and policymakers are striving to cope with these complex social, economic, political, and human dynamics. As they do, three vital lessons from the past and three unique realities about the present should inform a set of conversations we’ll need to have to shape a better future.

THE PAST

  • JOBS MACHINE: It’s clear that technology has created far more jobs than it has destroyed over the past 150 years. As labor-saving advancements are developed — often for mundane or dangerous tasks — people have been happy to move to safer and higher-order work; notwithstanding the anxiety that always accompanies change.
     
  • GREAT EQUALIZER:  Despite objectors and dire predictions, technological development has been a boon not only to productivity, but economic equality. Even the lowest-income Americans have access to goods and services that the richest could barely dream of accessing just decades ago.
     
  • UNPREDICTABILITY. Disruptive technologies and the massive industries and jobs they spawn are extremely difficult to foresee — much harder than existing jobs that may be threatened. The Chairman of IBM told Congress in 1943 that he anticipated only a need for about five computers in the world. The personal computer and Internet commerce have empowered, employed, and enriched masses of people even as it eliminated some jobs, displaced certain workers, and required new skills from us all. 

THE PRESENT

  • FASTER CHANGE.  Workplace dynamics and terms of employment are not those of our parents. The cascading effect of technological change on the economy and the job picture is accelerating. Jobs are more transient. The skills needed to maintain gainful employment are more sophisticated and evolve continuously.
     
  • 20th CENTURY FRAMEWORK. The recovery from the 2008 financial crisis indicates that the positive correlation between productivity and employment growth no longer holds firm in the 21st century — a reality with far-reaching social and organizational implications. The rapid pace of change gives us less time to anticipate, prepare and cope with economic, social, and political change. Our governance and social institutions —constructed for a 20th Century world — are out of sync with modernity and ill-suited to keep up.
     
  • SHIFTING BENEFITS.  The benefits of innovation once favored producers who used technology to make more for less. The balance of benefits came to favor consumers who now enjoy greater choice, customization, and price; but need jobs and income to capture the advantage.  

These lessons learned and new realities must inform a set of national conversations about how best to prepare for an uncertain future.

Conversation on WORKFORCE RESILIENCE centered on…

  • How can the public and private sector work better together to anticipate change and continuously upgrade job training and foster life-long learning and skills development that leads to gainful, satisfying employment? 
     
  • How can we help prepare workers, young and old, for changing job functions and processes that must integrate higher levels of automation?
     
  • ​What reforms in education and changes in curriculum (STEM, coding as a mandatory language, man-machine integration) are needed to make every American student more employable as workplace skill requirements change?
     
  • What help do workers need in bridging employment gaps created by rapid change to reduce economic anxiety and the stress on families and communities?

Conversation on MODERNIZATION centered on…

  • What changes are needed in our institutions, policies, and practices to sync with new economic, social, and political realities, and accelerating pace of change? 
     
  • How can we make benefits (health, pension, and job training) more flexible and portable? 
     
  • What changes are needed in social systems and support programs in an economy in which productivity and employment are untethered? 
     
  • How can our policymaking bodies and social institutions become more agile and proactive in a fast-changing economy?

Conversation on INNOVATION centered on…

  • How can we stimulate innovation rather than erect barriers to it?
     
  • What is needed to promote entrepreneurs and the new industries they will create?
     
  • What technological, social, and political innovations are needed to ensure a workforce necessary to support innovation and a public with the purchasing power to harness the magic for maximum good?

The advent of a new administration is an excellent time to hold a thoughtful national conversation on these topics. In the end, the conversation must translate into positive reform that makes America more innovative, our workforce more resilient, and our economy stronger and supportive of the American dream.  

 

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation examined the future of work at its WORK FORWARD event on July 11. Learn more