Study to discover effects of business automation on jobs

A National Academies research group is trying to find out how AI-enabled business automation will affect the workforce. Arguments land on both side of the spectrum.

The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine are trying to peer into a crystal ball and see if AI-enabled business automation will help or hurt the workforce. Through its search, the nonprofit institutions are learning about a range of outcomes from optimistic to pessimistic.

AI-enabled automation may create new jobs and industries, but it may also arrive too quickly for the workforce to adjust, leading to job losses and business disruptions.

The "incentives for businesses are to use automation to reduce the cost of labor, period," said Laura Tyson, a professor at the Haas School of Business at the University of California, Berkeley, during a National Academies' Automation and the U.S. Workforce Committee meeting this month.

Co-chairing the nine-member committee is Erik Brynjolfsson, a professor at the Stanford Institute for Human-Centered AI, and Tom Mitchell, a professor at Carnegie Mellon University, where he founded the machine learning department. The committee is aiming to complete the report by July 2023.

Tyson's critical point weighed against an optimistic outlook by one of the committee's invited speakers, Sebastian Thrun -- chairman and co-founder of learning provider Udacity Inc. -- who also appeared before the committee.

Some 200 years ago, about 80% of the population worked in farming; today it's less than 2%, Thrun said. That transition occurred due to advances in farming machinery, but it "didn't render all of us unemployed," he said. "Instead, we came up with new jobs like airline pilot or massage therapist or TV anchor."

"As we free humanity from repetitive work and give these tasks to machines, I envision that we become more creative and move faster as a society, and we will all be better off," Thurn said.

But Tyson said it's unclear what these new jobs will be. "Do we know what skills need to be taught?" she asked. "And how do we do that?"

Too fast to adjust

Charles Isbell, dean of the College of Computing at the Georgia Institute of Technology, said that the changes caused by business automation might come too fast for workforces to adjust.

"In other words, our problems are exponential, and most of our solutions are linear," he said.

But Isbell also indicated that rapid changes in education are possible. Georgia Tech now has 12,000 students in its online degree program in computer sciences. The school will be responsible for around one-fifth to one-sixth of computer science graduates in the nation, something it has accomplished in about eight years, he said.

Our problems are exponential, and most of our solutions are linear.
Charles IsbellDean of College of Computing, Georgia Institute of Technology

James Manyika -- senior vice president of technology and society at Google and senior partner emeritus at consulting firm McKinsey & Co. -- whose job is to look at the impacts of technology on society, said automation would take some jobs. "At the same time, we will also see jobs gained" due to new occupations, he said.

But more significantly, Manyika said business automation could change jobs for about 60% of occupations. Those are jobs where about a third of the work done by a worker can now be automated.

"For the U.S., we think over time that there will actually be more jobs gained than lost," Manyika said, but getting there depends on continued economic growth and growth in labor demand.

However, Manyika also cautioned the wage effects of automation. In some cases where automation complements an occupation, he said productivity increases, "and good things happen" for the worker and employer. But for workers with commoditized skills, automation may put pressure on their wages, he added.

Patrick Thibodeau covers HCM and ERP technologies for TechTarget Editorial. He's worked for more than two decades as an enterprise IT reporter.

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