Exploring the Connection Between Productivity and Automation

The world is full of dire warnings:

• “A new era of production has begun in which there may soon be no more need for a vast pool of workers.”

• “We must ask ourselves, is automatic machinery … going to leave on our hands a state of chronic and increasing unemployment?” (A U.S. secretary of labor)

• “I regard it as the major domestic challenge to maintain full employment at a time when automation, of course, is replacing men.” (A U.S. president)

• “It is entirely possible … we will have a permanent segment of our society unemployed, but which will have to be provided for.” (A Fortune 100 CEO)

Were these comments about artificial intelligence today? Actually, no. Those comments are from 1927, 1984, 1967 and 1984 (The president in the comments was Lyndon Johnson.)

Robert Atkinson, president of the Washington-based think tank Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, discussed studies on the impact of technology on the workforce – including the impact of artificial intelligence.

He’s more than dubious of the current projections that changes brought by artificial intelligence will replace 50 percent of jobs – or that “brain work may be going the way of manual work,” in one expert’s statement.

Atkinson said  history shows that technological change is slow, and that all the dire predictions of decades past were woefully wrong. He feels the same about the impact of artificial intelligence today.

“Artificial intelligence is relatively stupid and relatively narrow,” he said. For example: It can beat a person in a game. But can it care for an infant?

Atkinson went through Bureau of Labor Statistics job classifications and discussed which ones have the potential to be impacted by artificial intelligence and automation. Plenty of jobs are safe, he said – and will be for a long, long time.

For example, he asked, are people willing to go to the dentist and let robots clean their teeth?

“It’s not going to happen,” he said.

Atkinson also described a typology of artificial intelligence functions, breaking them into “process automation” (self-driving cars), “cognitive insight” (diagnosing disease) and “cognitive engagement” (technical support). Much of artificial intelligence, he said, will boost quality but not eliminate jobs.

He said the impacts will be manageable; his foundation estimates about 20 percent of jobs will ultimately be lost due to automation.


This program is funded by IBM. NPF is solely responsible for the content.


More Presentations
Help Make Good Journalists Better
Donate to the National Press Foundation to help us keep journalists informed on the issues that matter most.