Technology’s Future Impact on Jobs … Still So Many Questions

Many viewpoints on the subject make for some interesting, spirited debates

By Joseph Coombs Sep 4, 2014

Yes, robotics and artificial intelligence are displacing people in some jobs. But let’s not forget that ongoing technology innovation also creates plenty of new opportunities—and new industries—for American job seekers. Answers to questions about the impact of technological shifts within the workplace remain heavily researched and debated.

Some interesting perspectives about advances in technology and their impact on society have been published this year in the Pew Research Center’s 2014 Future of the Internet project, research which the organization has undertaken to mark the 25th anniversary of the creation of the World Wide Web. Its latest report, released Aug. 6, captures respondents’ views about advances in artificial intelligence and robotics, and their impact on jobs and employment.

One of the questions asked during the canvassing conducted withElon University’s Imagining the Internet Centerbetween Nov. 25, 2013, and Jan.13, 2014,was: “Will networked, automated, artificial intelligence (AI) applications and robotic devices have displaced more jobs than they have created by 2025?” Pew calls this a canvassing because it is not a representative, randomized survey.

The respondents comprised professionals from a wide array of industries, such as research scientists (19 percent); authors, editors and journalists (10 percent); entrepreneurs and business leaders (9 percent); and technology developers and administrators (8 percent). Overall, nearly 1,900 experts’ viewpoints were almost equally divided among the “yes” and “no” camps; 52 percent responded that technology will not displace more jobs than it creates by 2025, but 48 percent said the opposite would hold true. Some said it’s already happening.

Several key themes ran throughout the respondents’ comments. Those who said that technology will not displace more jobs than it creates noted that historically more jobs have been created with increased automation and that the nature of work has always changed throughout the evolution of technology.

However, respondents who said that technology will displace more jobs than it creates by 2025 said that white-collar jobs are now being eliminated in the same fashion that blue-collar jobs were when automation first took hold.

John Markoff, senior writer for the science section of TheNew York Times, leaned on the positive side, noting that technological upgrades can create new jobs even as they eliminate older ones.

“There will be a vast displacement of labor over the next decade. That is true,” wrote Markoff. “But, if we had gone back 15 years, who would have thought that ‘search engine optimization’ would be a significant job category?”

“Everything that can be automated will be automated,” noted Internet law and policy expert Robert Cannon. “Nonskilled jobs lacking in ‘human contribution’ will be replaced by automation when the economics are favorable. At the hardware store, the guy who used to cut the keys has been replaced by a robot. In the law office, the clerks who used to prepare discovery have been replaced by software.”

Respondents did agree on a couple of points. The majority said that public institutions, particularly higher education, are not prepared for this coming wave of changes. They also argued that the future of technology in the workplace has yet to be truly determined, and it will instead be guided primarily by social and political choices that we make as a society.

A separate survey report from CareerBuilder and Economic Modeling Specialists Internationalreleased July 31, touched on technology’s role in the workplace and perhaps provided a near-term answer to Pew Research’s question. The survey revealed that more than one in five U.S. companies (21 percent) reported they have already replaced workers with automation. The survey was taken from a sample of 2,188 hiring managers and HR professionals across various industries and company sizes.

But of those that cut jobs in favor of automation, 68 percent said their “adoption of new technology” resulted in new positions being added in their firms. Another 35 percent of the group that “deskilled” workers said they ended up creating more jobs at their organizations than they had prior to the automation.

The likely result of all this? Technological advancements, as in the past, will simultaneously eliminate and create jobs, but to what extent is anyone’s guess.

So don’t fear a future congested with driverless cars. When they do become commonplace, they’ll most certainly require the attention of skilled mechanics.

Joseph Coombs is a senior analyst for workforce trends at SHRM.


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