Renewed focus on research and development. R&D has been an engine of national growth throughout America’s history. However, the share of R&D taking place in the United States—both executed and sponsored by government—has been steadily declining. The displacement of the traditional workforce could be an opportunity to reinvest in future growth. Despite progress across virtually all scientific disciplines, much work remains to be done. Consider biology, where we still understand only a tiny percentage of the function of the human genome’s 3.3 billion base pairs, and emerging infectious diseases remain a daily threat in much of the world. Or advanced materials, where self-assembly offers solutions in areas as diverse as infrastructure and personalized medicine. Progress in R&D could even lead to greater understanding of natural disasters, risk mitigation and the future of resilient societies.
Greater corporate responsibility. Corporations have a vital role in the future of technology and labor. Rethinking how companies measure their success could be a step in the right direction. A relatively new corporate structure could provide such a path: a benefit corporation officially bases its success on measures beyond traditional ones like quarterly corporate earnings. A benefit corporation, as one introduction to the concept explains, “legally protects an entrepreneur’s social goals by mandating considerations other than just profit.” If a benefit corporation begins to prioritize societal benefit as much or more than quarterly earnings, labor enrichment could come to be valued as much as return on investment.
Developing a national strategy for the future of work. The public and private sectors must work together to ensure a viable future workforce. They must address the full range of economic, security, social, and health and welfare outcomes associated with large pools of untapped labor. Actions taken now could help mitigate, to the extent possible, the coming displacement of jobs. A laissez-faire approach that allows market forces to drive future labor requirements will likely result in a less prepared future workforce, economic instability and perhaps even societal unrest.
THE FUTURE is not preordained to be a workerless society in which output is generated solely by AI- enabled robots “led” by C-suite managers. Disruptive technologies and innovations have displaced workers in the past, and society has weathered the storm.
However, this time feels somewhat different. Technological advances in AI, autonomy and robotics—being aided by the synergistic effects of the IOT, 3D printing and big-data science—are fueling these changes. In other words, technology is coming to substitute for doing and thinking, and increasing the number of jobs that might be made obsolete.
Opportunities exist today to begin a serious national dialogue about the future of work. Our ability to seize these opportunities will be key to navigating the future that lies at the intersection of technology and labor.
Daniel M. Gerstein works at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation and is an adjunct professor at American University. He was the undersecretary (acting) and deputy undersecretary in the Science and Technology Directorate of the Department of Homeland Security from 2011–14.