Over the last decade, Americans have witnessed a breakdown of traditional industry boundaries. New industries are being created and existing ones restructured by the accelerating pace of technological innovation.
This shift is taking place in the context of a larger economic transition from the Industrial Age that began in the second half of the 18th century to the Information Age, fueled by revolutionary technologies such as the digital computer, the internet, and related information technology.
The increasing pace of technological change impacts human capital markets. Today’s children will grow up in a world unlike that of their parents, as technology transforms media, medicine, transportation and every aspect of how people conduct themselves.
The nanotechnology revolution and gene sequencing, which is just beginning, promises significant upheaval for a vast array of industries ranging from tiny medical devices to new age materials for earthquake resistant buildings. Recent service innovations include social media and online search engines that respond to voice commands.
Reality is getting complicated. Dealing with it will require taking some of the wealth created from the new industries and reinvesting it in skills development for displaced workers and rethinking policies about work and education.
Two things are certain: technological progress is relentless and accelerating, and today’s technology becomes outdated almost as soon as it can be brought to market. Consider the multiple models of smartphones introduced each year.
Advances in technology are causing disruptive changes in mature industries by introducing substitutes or altering the industry landscape by opening up whole new frontiers. For instance, revolutionary change in self-driving technology has enabled even companies such as Alphabet, the parent of Google, to enter the motor vehicle market.
Every major car company is researching and building its own version of a driverless vehicle, and industry observers are predicting they will have autonomous vehicles, internet-connected driverless vehicles without a pedal and steering wheel, on the road in five-to-ten years. The vehicle may turn out to be the ultimate mobile device.
Cutting-edge advances in artificial intelligence will have an unequal impact on livelihoods depending on which industries and individuals can create or adapt to these breakthroughs and which are left behind. They could be as consequential for labor as the agricultural and industrial revolutions that preceded it.
Two-and-a-half million people in the United States make their living from driving trucks, taxis, or buses and all are vulnerable to displacement by driverless cars. These jobs are just the tip of the iceberg.
For example, it is likely that children born today will never drive a car and may have a job in a career that does not yet exist. Robots have displaced manufacturing jobs in electronics, metal products, plastics, and chemicals with activities such as welding, painting, packaging and even operating heavy machinery.
These changes are disorienting and more than a little scary for the ordinary American already dealing with a sense of economic insecurity. Meanwhile, recent developments in robotics, artificial intelligence, and machine labor are automating work that is cognitive and non-manual. Robots are increasingly being used for a variety of tasks from precision agriculture to robotic surgery jobs that were largely immune from technological advances.
Automation will not happen overnight. It will take years to play out fully and will vary across industries, firms, jobs, and activities. But the time is now to come to terms with the uncomfortable reality that in the future, just a fraction of the population may have the talent and education to work alongside machines, while everyone else will bear the brunt of the changes.
These discontinuities raise important public policy issues about the social framework that makes sure those who are losing their jobs are able to stay afloat long enough to pivot to new opportunities and force us to rethink issues such as providing a guaranteed universal basic income. The future is arriving sooner than we thought and our country is unprepared.
Originally Published: April 29, 2017