Policy makers are sleep walking into our AI future

The impact automation might have on our way of working is something I’ve touched on numerous times in the past year.  I’ve attempted to look at the situation from a systemic perspective, a historical perspective, from that of employers, employees and also policy makers.

I’m generally of an optimistic bent on these things, but am realistic enough to know that change is afoot, and adaptability to that change will be key.  Whilst policy makers have said the right things, I’m not sure their actions really support their words.

That was reinforced by a recent study from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine (NASEM).

“Policymakers are flying blind into what has been called the fourth industrial revolution,” the authors say.

Eyes wide shut

For agencies to assess the possible impact of technology on the labor market, the authors contend that they need to collect very different kinds of labor data.

The paper reminds us that whilst the exact changes to the labor market will be unclear, there will be disruption, and a crucial start point is to know the precise state of affairs at the moment.  Alas, it’s a desire that is often lacking in policy circles.

“There is a dramatic shortage of information and data about the exact state of the workforce and automation, so policymakers don’t know answers to even basic questions such as ‘Which types of technologies are currently having the greatest impacts on jobs?’ and ‘What new technologies are likely to have the greatest impact in the next few years?'” the authors say.

“Our NASEM study report details a number of both positive and negative influences technology has had on the workforce,” they continue. “These include replacing some jobs by automation, creating the opportunity for new types of freelance work in companies like Uber and Lyft, and making education and retraining courses available to everyone through the internet. But nobody can judge today the relative impact these different forces have made on the workforce, or their net outcome.”

The need for data

The paper argues that we need much better data and more analysis on just how technology is influencing the workforce, both in individual instances but also more holistically.  The paper also argues for changes to the way we educate people, and whilst it argues for a retooling of the school system to focus primarily on those things that are uniquely human, it fails to cover the huge need for adult education to allow those already in the workforce to appropriately adapt their skills to the new economy.

The authors do however urge policy makers to invest in new data, methods and infrastructures to help support the research into this topic.  This will likely see a combination of public and privately held data.

“Governments must learn the lessons that industry has learned over the past decade, about how to take advantage of the exploding volume of online, real-time data to design more attractive products and more effective management policies,” they say.

To do so requires government itself to become more adaptable, and employ a more ‘sense and respond’ style of work.  Suffice to say, this is a fundamental shift in how governments usually operate, so I can’t say I’m especially optimistic on this front, which probably means that whatever the future has in store for us, there are likely to be numerous mis-steps along the way.

Heads in the sand

A good example comes from the UK, where three years ago the UK Commission for Employment and Skills examined the future of work in 2030.  A report outlined a number of scenarios for how work might be changing.

The report rightly comments on the changing nature of work and the fact that people entering the workforce today have numerous different jobs in various professions over the course of their career.

“The idea of a single education, followed by a single career, finishing with a single pension is over,” the report comments.

And yet three years on from that, the government is still squabbling over grammar schools, and greater support for lifelong learning is little more than an afterthought among policy makers.

If nothing else, we have some interesting times ahead.

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