The future of work is intricately linked to the development and application of technologies. While new technological breakthroughs are being made almost daily, the benefits brought by the productivity gains are far from equally distributed in different groups of society. Taking actions to ensure technology empowers, augments, rewards, and respects the majority has become an urgent task of our time.
In the ninth episode of the Future of Work webinar series organized by the Institute for New Economic Thinking, Antonio Andreoni, professor at University College London, Tess Posner, CEO of AI4ALL, and Martin Reeves, chairman of BCG Henderson Institute, were joined by Katya Klinova from Partnership in AI in a discussion on how technologies could be developed and deployed for the betterment of humanity as a whole.
First and foremost, who is represented in the process of technology development directly influences which technologies are built, what problems they are designed to solve, and how they’re used in societies. From recent experiences, the situation is dire. The groups of people historically excluded from economic growth or most impacted by technologies are often not present as new technologies are being built. Take the artificial intelligence industry for example. As the frontier of today’s technology, only 14% of AI technologists are women, and the number is even worse for people of color. Little wonder that stories are already emerging that AI is introducing biases to communities of color and minority groups on issues ranging from access to credit and insurance to computer vision and image recognition problems. Similar trends arise from the COVID-19 pandemic. The frontline workers have been essential in keeping societies together during this difficult time. They too, however, may see their jobs put at risk if the quest for automation continues to dominate the tech discussion. Broadening the representation in technology development is the first crucial step in democratizing technology.
Unequal dissemination of technology is also happening across many dimensions, each requiring distinct interventions. At the national level, some countries are further ahead in adoption of digital technologies than others, with the European countries trailing U.S. and China for example among major economies. A wider chasm is observed between the technological frontier countries and developing countries, complicating the latter’s task to cope with both deglobalization and technological disruption. Individual national strategies and international cooperation are essential for closing the digital divide. Across different social groups, some benefit much more than others depending on skills, industries, locations, and social networks. Building a diverse workforce, rethinking skill requirements, and having targeted support at sectoral levels are all called for to spread the productivity gains. Meanwhile, uneven returns are also present within organizations, including during the COVID economy where remote work is the norm. Competitive margins between companies will increasingly focus on who is better at applying technology for the majority of workers.
Many discussions point to improving education and training of the labor force as an integral element of harnessing technology, especially building the so-called “future-proof” skills that focus on our unique human capabilities in a highly uncertain future. As technology takes over repetitive human labor and threatens to replace white-collar workers, understanding what these skills are on an individual, organizational, and social level have become critical. The initiative at the non-profit AI4ALL for example, has focused on engaging underrepresented high school and college students to raise their awareness on questions such as the social implications of technologies and ethical frameworks to analyze them, amid shorter shelf lives of skills in general. Organizational changes at the corporate, industry and government levels are similarly required to provide workers both the opportunity to transition and also the sense of safety as society adapts to these changes.
Faced with a monumental force of disruption and changing economic landscape, social and economic policies too need rethinking and updating. To ensure inclusive and sustainable prosperity in the digital era, what policy packages are most effective and equitable? The next episodes of this webinar series will continue on this topic.