Progress in many of the basic computing and information technologies has been rapid in recent years, and the committee does not expect the pace of change to slow down in the foreseeable future. While some technologies are reaching maturity now, many important technologies have enormous future potential. As more of the world’s information is digitized and more people and things are networked, the economics of the digital, networked economy will become ever more important. This includes the ability to make copies of goods and services at almost zero cost and deliver them anywhere on the planet almost instantaneously. Furthermore, digitization of products, services, processes, and interactions makes it possible to measure and manage work with far more precision. Data-driven decision making and machine learning provide vast opportunities for improving productivity, efficiency, accuracy, and innovation.
The committee expects important innovations to come in the area of artifical intelligence (AI) and robotics. Several decades ago, humans were unable to converse with machines using ordinary speech; now it is done routinely. Machines are learning to effectively translate from one language to another, a task once seen only in science fiction. We are moving from an era where machines were blind, unable to recognize even simple objects, to an era where they can distinguish faces, read street signs, and understand the content of photographs as well as—or better than—humans. They are being put to work reading X-ray and MRI images, advising doctors on potential drug interactions, helping lawyers
sift through documents, and composing simple stories about sports and finance for newspapers. Machines are becoming much better at reasoning and can now defeat the best humans at most games of skill, from checkers and chess to trivia and Go. Machines are learning to drive cars, which could potentially save thousands of lives in the United States and millions worldwide. Bipedal robots are learning to navigate stairs and uneven terrain, while their cheetah-like brethren can outrun even the fastest humans. Many of the technologies with the greatest impact will likely look unlike any human or animal, but will transport shelves of inventory throughout warehouses, assemble basic electronics in factories, fly to disaster zones with medicine, swim beneath the waves to gather data for oceanographers, and haunt computer networks in search of cyberattacks. In fact, many of these exist in some form already, although they are likely to become more widespread and more competent.
While there are undoubtedly important technological breakthroughs to come, it is critical to note that the technologies that exist today and those under active development have important implications for the workforce. They create opportunities for new products, services, organizational processes, and business models as well as opportunities for automating existing tasks, even whole occupations. Many cognitive and physical tasks will be replaced by machines. At the same time, we expect new job opportunities to emerge as increasingly capable combinations of humans and machines attack problems that previously have been intractable.
Advances in IT and automation will present opportunities to boost America’s overall income and wealth, improve health care, shorten the work week, develop new goods and services, and increase product safety and reliability.
These same advances could also lead to growing inequality, decreased job stability, increasing demands on workers to change jobs, and changes in business organization. There are also important implications for other aspects of society, both intended and unintended, not the least of which include potentially profound changes in education, privacy, security, social relationships, and even democracy.
The ultimate effects of these technologies are not predetermined. Rather, like all tools, computing and information technologies can be used in many different ways. The outcomes for the workforce and society at large depend on our choices. Technology can be a powerful tool. What do we want for our future society? How do we decide this?
Potential future technological capabilities and innovations are largely unpredictable, and their implications and interactions are complex. Investing in extensive and effective data gathering, a robust infrastructure for analyzing these data, and multidisciplinary research will enable a deeper
understanding of emerging changes in technology and the workforce. The results of this research will inform the adoption of policies that will help maximize the resilience and prosperity of the institutions, organizations, and individuals in our society.