Fears of widespread automation and an imminent world without work have risen as advances in digital technology herald the emergence of increasingly sophisticated artificial intelligence. A distinct air of technological determinism – that the technology by itself dictates its broader economic and societal impacts – surrounds these dire predictions, while ignoring the political and organizational factors that often shape the nature and pace of social change. Society can amplify automation’s benefits while limiting its harm.
Government policy and research funding should favor the development of artificial intelligence that expands human capabilities rather than substituting for them. For example, artificial intelligence-based medical diagnostics systems and instructional technology can broadly expand the reach of health care and education, especially in less prosperous countries, by empowering a broader fraction of the population to participate in these professions.
Investments in physical and social infrastructure must allow the benefits of automation to be widely shared. When cars become autonomous, cities can be redesigned to improve the quality of urban life. And as corporate employees get replaced by a more independent and entrepreneurial workforce, a trend already apparent today, benefits like paid time off, workplace insurance and income stability are available to fewer, challenging a social safety net that is contingent on full-time employment. Fashioning and funding a next-generation social contract, perhaps as a new partnership between the government, the individual and the institution, or maybe even as a universal basic income, may be instrumental in preventing modern-day versions of the Luddite rebellions that accompanied the Industrial Revolution.
Eventually, whether technological progress will increase or diminish human employment has always been a race between education and technology. The benefits of digitally enabled automation can thus be amplified by a reinvention of our educational system. As the cognitive capabilities of machines expand, the economy will need less STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) education in its workforce, and more design thinking, entrepreneurship and creativity instead. And perhaps more caring, empathy and compassion as well, human qualities most likely to differentiate us from the machines we compete with for the jobs of the future.
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