US government blind to workplace automation, study warns

Policymakers do not have anywhere near enough information or data about how technological advancements and workplace automation could impact on the future of work, according to a study by researchers at the US’ National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine (NASEM).

The study, Information Technology and the US Workforce: Where Are We and Where Do We Go From Here, presents a stark warning about how little the US government knows about what the impact of advances in IT, robotics and artificial intelligence on jobs will be, concluding that such a lack of knowledge could be catastrophic to the job market.

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

Robots may already have impacted manufacturing, but wider technological advances could have an effect on almost every industry and occupation

Published today alongside a commentary by Mitchell and Brynjolfsson in the journal Nature, the study concludes that technological advances will likely have an impact greater than any workplace disruption previously – potentially impacting almost all jobs – and yet the US government has very little data about what may happen.

“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?'” Mitchell explained.

“Our NASEM study report details a number of both positive and negative influences technology has had on the workforce. These include replacing some jobs by automation, creating the opportunity for new types of freelance work in companies like Uber and Lyft, and making education and retraining courses available to everyone through the internet. But nobody can judge today the relative impact these different forces have made on the workforce, or their net outcome.”

Donald Trump may not welcome the research, as it could impact upon his current focus on bringing jobs back to the US. Image courtesy of Andrew Cline / Shutterstock.com

The study argues that more research is urgently needed to determine how automation and other technological advances are set to impact on the future US workforce, with the co-chair’s commentary going so far as to call for an integrated information strategy that would pull together both public and privately held data into one unified source.

“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.

However, the study may not be welcomed by the Trump administration. The research comes at a time when the new administration is determined to attract manufacturing back to the US, and generate large numbers of new jobs in the process. As a result, such suggestions of a future problem with employment may not be met favourably.

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