Policy ForumTechnology and the Economy

What can machine learning do? Workforce implications

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Science  22 Dec 2017:
Vol. 358, Issue 6370, pp. 1530-1534
DOI: 10.1126/science.aap8062

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Summary

Digital computers have transformed work in almost every sector of the economy over the past several decades (1). We are now at the beginning of an even larger and more rapid transformation due to recent advances in machine learning (ML), which is capable of accelerating the pace of automation itself. However, although it is clear that ML is a “general purpose technology,” like the steam engine and electricity, which spawns a plethora of additional innovations and capabilities (2), there is no widely shared agreement on the tasks where ML systems excel, and thus little agreement on the specific expected impacts on the workforce and on the economy more broadly. We discuss what we see to be key implications for the workforce, drawing on our rubric of what the current generation of ML systems can and cannot do [see the supplementary materials (SM)]. Although parts of many jobs may be “suitable for ML” (SML), other tasks within these same jobs do not fit the criteria for ML well; hence, effects on employment are more complex than the simple replacement and substitution story emphasized by some. Although economic effects of ML are relatively limited today, and we are not facing the imminent “end of work” as is sometimes proclaimed, the implications for the economy and the workforce going forward are profound.