Recent years have yielded significant advances in computing and communication technologies, with profound impacts on society. Technology is transforming the way we work, play, and interact with others. People are connected as never before; with the Internet now accessible through mobile devices, tools such as e-mail and video chat have become commonplace, and numerous social media platforms enable us to share and curate pieces of our identity with others. When we begin to type messages, computers can often complete our words. We no longer need to remember phone numbers, appointments, names, or directions.
From these technological capabilities, vast new industries and business models are emerging. Personal health devices, computers that respond to our voices, ride-sharing services, and robot-controlled warehouses are becoming commonplace. Online shopping services allow us to find what we want, comparison shop, and purchase instantly. With the flick of a finger, we can order takeout, call a cab, or open a news article tailored specifically to our interests. Some automobiles can even park themselves. These new capabilities offer convenience and novelty, making some things easier and changing how we interface with the world. Today’s changing technological capabilities prompt an examination of what it means to exist in this new, digital world. Some point to how technologies improve our quality of life. Others wonder if they change what it means to be human. What role should technology play? What do we want
the future to look like, and how do we get there? Who gets to choose, and how does this change us as a society? Such questions are deeply entwined with our values—our hopes and fears about what we will achieve as a society, for ourselves, and for our children.
Throughout the course of history, humankind has developed technologies that have transformed society and our way of life, with significant impacts on the workforce. Advances ranging from the steam engine to electricity to the personal computer have created efficiencies, enhanced productivity, and improved overall standards of living. These changes have contributed to the displacement of workers, sometimes with a delayed recovery of employment numbers. They have also resulted in new worker skills requirements and the emergence of new types of jobs and leisure activities.
The impact of technology on work is of particular importance. First and foremost, work provides income and economic stability. Jobs enable parents to feed, house, and educate their children. At their best, jobs also employ and cultivate our skills and strengths, provide community, and enable us to contribute to society. Jobs can shape individuals’ identities and help provide a sense of meaning or purpose.
According to the World Economic Forum’s 2016 Future of Jobs report, many industry leaders believe that we are on the cusp of a fourth industrial revolution, one driven predominantly by advances in computing and information technologies. The technologies perceived as top trends (and corresponding time frames of impact) among surveyed industry leaders are summarized in Table 1.1.1
Computing, communication, and information technologies are widely seen as the general-purpose technology of the current era. In recent years, advances in these areas have raised significant interest and debate. With the establishment of the Internet and the exponential increases in computing power, networking speed, and generation of digital data over the past few decades, our lives and work have already changed significantly at many levels. Information technology has improved worker performance in many jobs. For example, radiologists now use computer software to flag anomalous locations in X-rays and other medical images. Automated cytopathology has helped pathologists by enabling fast-paced screening for precancerous or cancerous cells. Technology has also enabled automation of other jobs, such as highway toll collection, and created entirely new jobs, such as website development. It has even given rise to entirely new modes
1 World Economic Forum, 2016, The Future of Jobs: Employment Skills and Workforce Strategy for the Fourth Industrial Revolution, http://www3.weforum.org/docs/WEF_Future_of_Jobs.pdf.
TABLE 1.1 Top Perceived Technological Drivers of Change (as reported by industry leaders polled for the 2016 Future of Jobs Report from the World Economic Forum)
|Driver of Change||Respondents Rating This as a Top Driver (%)||Time Frame of Impact|
|Mobile Internet and cloud technology||34||2016-2017|
|Advances in computing power and big data||26||2015-2017|
|New energy supplies and technologies||22||2015-2017|
|The Internet of things||14||2015-2017|
|Crowdsourcing, the sharing economy, and peer-to-peer platforms||12||Impact felt already|
|Advanced robotics and autonomous transport||9||2018-2020|
|Artificial intelligence and machine learning||7||2018-2020|
|Advanced manufacturing and 3D printing||6||2015-2017|
|Advanced materials, biotechnology, and genomics||6||2018-2020|
SOURCE World Economic Forum, 2016, The Future of Jobs: Employment Skills and Workforce Strategy for the Fourth Industrial Revolution, http://www3.weforum.org/docs/WEF_Future_of_Jobs.pdf.
of work, including through the on-demand economy, in which workers are matched by computer to work as it becomes available.
Advances in technology have always shifted the nature of work. Industrialization in the 19th and 20th centuries produced major shifts, from farming and rural life to non-farm jobs in cities. Two major disruptions include the first and second industrial revolutions, with the introduction of the steam engine and broader factory automation, and the introduction of basic computing technologies represents a third paradigm shift. All were costly changes from which we have recovered. However, a debate has emerged as to whether the current pace of advances—and the types of technology that are emerging—may cause more rapid, broad, or deep changes than ever before.
The question of whether technological advances could lead to large-scale worker displacement or unemployment as a result of new forms of automation has become increasingly visible in the media in recent years, driven in part by advances in fields such as AI and robotics that are making it increasingly possible for machines to complete nonroutine physical and cognitive tasks currently performed by humans.
A 2015 survey conducted by the Pew Research Center found that 65 percent of respondents (a sampling of American adults) expected that robots and computers would “definitely” or “probably” do much of the work currently performed by humans by the year 2065. Of this same group, 80 percent expressed the expectation that their own jobs will “definitely” or “probably” still exist at that time.2
While many opinions and educated predictions have been offered, the ultimate limits of what can be automated and the rate at which automating technologies will displace existing work functions are not known. Along with the public, researchers are becoming increasingly interested in examining work at the human-technology frontier and the rate and extent to which the nature of work may change; nonetheless, there is much that is not known.
Work has a central role in supporting stability and productivity in today’s society. The nation will benefit from an enhanced understanding of the current state of the workforce and how it is changing—or how it may change—with the further development and adoption of new technologies.
This study aims to address these questions by examining current knowledge, identifying gaps in research and data, and highlighting key issues that will be critical to monitor and anticipate as technology continues to advance. An informed policy debate will require answers to factual questions, including the following, which the committee begins to address in this report.
- Technology impact. What are the most current capabilities of information and automating technologies, what changes are likely, and what are the mechanisms by which technology deployment and diffusion impact U.S. jobs, the economy, and equality in opportunity for workers? What is the best way to monitor and track this impact? What are the costs of failures of technologies upon which businesses have come to rely?
- Job creation and elimination. What is the number and the distribution of jobs that are being eliminated as a result of automation, versus jobs that are being created by new affordances of technology?
- Inequality and fairness. How might new technologies, and the mechanisms for converting them into new products and new wealth, impact
2 A. Smith, 2016, “Public Predictions for the Future of Workforce Automation,” Pew Research Center, http://www.pewInternet.org/2016/03/10/public-predictions-for-the-futureof-workforce-automation/.
the fairness of work conditions, the growing skew in income and wealth distributions, and job opportunities across society, especially given that technology-intensive companies often require fewer employees?
- Worker experience. How might the nature of jobs and work functions change in different occupational fields, and how might this impact worker satisfaction, including workers’ senses of making a real contribution and their sense that they are being fairly compensated for their work?
- Educational needs. What new kinds of primary, secondary, vocational, university, and continuing education strategies will enable workers to acquire the skills needed in the changing employment environment?
- Educational tools. How can technology, including its use to provide education over the Internet, improve access to and quality of education and workforce preparation for all?
- New forms of employment. What new modes of employment are enabled by technology?
- Business dynamism. How might anticipated technological advances impact the ability of businesses to sprout and grow?
- Policy. How might labor standards and economic policies contribute to or mitigate the negative impacts of technology on the workforce?
A deep and current understanding of these dimensions will require sustained efforts to monitor and unravel how technology is advancing and how it is affecting employment opportunities, employers, income and wealth distribution, education, worker experiences, and related areas.
The discussions that follow in this report explore current technology, business, economic, and policy trends and their interactions; identify potential near-term developments; and emphasize the need to understand and track these trends and develop strategies for adapting to future developments and possible disruptions to the status quo. Rather than aiming to predict the future, this report offers evaluations of what is known, open questions to be addressed, and productive pathways forward.
The committee defines three key terms as follows:
- Information technology (IT) is “the technology involving the development, maintenance, and use of computer systems, software, and networks for the processing and distribution of data.”3 In the following discussions, the committee will use this term broadly to connote all computing hardware, software, platforms, and interfaces that enable the storage, transmission, processing, or analysis of data in the digital form, regardless of
3 Meriam-Webster Dictionary, 2014, “Technology,” http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/information%20technology.
degree of maturity. This includes computers, mobile devices, the Internet, telecommunication devices, robotic systems, software, and algorithms.
- Automation is defined as “the technique, method, or system of operating or controlling a process by highly automatic means, as by electronic devices, reducing human intervention to a minimum.”4 Throughout this report, the committee uses this term to denote the use of IT to perform any physical or intellectual task or process that would otherwise be done manually, by or under the direct control of a human.
- Digitization refers to the process of moving data or operations onto computers and/or online.
The report is organized as follows:
- Chapter 2 describes the major technological trends and emerging capabilities since the turn of the 21st century as well as examples of how they have been applied in business and daily life, likely near-term advances, and their implications for different types of work.
- Chapter 3 reviews the current state of U.S. productivity growth, employment, and income distributions. The current and emerging role of technology is considered for each, building on the discussions from Chapter 2.
- Chapter 4 examines recent changes and emerging trends in the nature of work and how it is organized. It begins by exploring the on-demand economy, contingent labor, and business dynamism, followed by a discussion of the worker experience, including demographics, organizational structures, worker protections, the role of work in our lives, and the importance of education.
- Chapter 5 reviews important and emerging types and sources of data used by researchers and policy makers to track and analyze workforce trends and examine the role of technology, emphasizing the utility and challenges of working with each.
- Chapter 6 identifies important, high-level findings to guide future thinking, proposes a set of key research themes and strategies, and highlights potential mechanisms through which the results of targeted, multidisciplinary, and sustained research can help to inform policy makers.
- Chapter 7 offers final reflections and conclusions.