Introduction: Readying for the Next Revolution Introduction: Readying for the Next Revolution

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November 21, 2019

We have some crucial decisions to make about how to plug AI into our workplaces if we want to prioritize equity, productivity, and innovation for the benefit of many more Americans.

Gabriella Chiarenza is managing editor for Invested and Regional and Community Outreach at the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston.

What if a new technology came along that could help to change the future of employment for the better? But what if using it in this way meant we had to alter our societal priorities, business incentives, and understanding of our own skill sets? It is rare for a technology to change our work and our lives in this way, but we have seen it before with innovations like electricity and the steam engine. Now, after decades of false starts and new developments, artificial intelligence (AI) is finally poised to enter our workplaces and work processes in a major way, as either an incredible tool or a highly disruptive threat. The impact that AI makes in our work world certainly depends in part on the continuously expanding capabilities of the technology itself. But whether the technology is used to benefit or further isolate workers and communities may have more to do with the choices we make around how we use it.

"Introducing AI into our world of human work isn’t the beginning of the end for humans, but it isn’t a magic bullet either."

The specter of AI looms ominously in the imaginations of many American workers, and yet few really know much about it. So far, AI has not rolled into many industries or workplaces in a significant way, so there are not many workers who have already been impacted by the technology at work and they are concentrated in certain industries at this point. Is AI really the threat to human employment that it is sometimes made out to be? Is there anything we can do to influence how it comes into our workplaces? What players and forces impact the path it may take? Perhaps most critically, from our perspective: how do you consider and contribute to a conversation around a potentially massive change that has barely begun, without further feeding the flames of speculative hype or dread, in order to explore ways to implement AI so that it benefits workers, businesses, and consumers alike?

As usual, we were curious. So we dug into the background of AI and sat down with some of the people deeply familiar with the technology—who design, develop, and think strategically about the use of AI in the workplace—as well as a few early adopters on the business side and a few workers who are thinking ahead about how they might be impacted. We wanted to know what makes AI particularly revolutionary as a technology and just how far along and capable that technology actually is at this point. We were curious about whether we are in the early stages of another industrial revolution like those of the past or if we are on the verge of an even more profound change. We sought to better understand the ways AI has been and could be incorporated into different kinds of work. We asked about what is at stake for American workers and businesses depending on the path AI takes in its continued development and expansion into workplaces. And we considered who should be involved to help guide that development in a more equitable and productive direction.

"As a society, we have some crucial decisions to make about how to plug AI into our workplaces if we want to prioritize equity, productivity, and innovation for the benefit of many more Americans."

In this issue of Invested, we share with you what we’ve learned about what’s really happening with AI-based technologies in the lab and in the workplaces where they are starting to emerge. The long and short of it is that no, robots likely aren’t coming for your job tomorrow. AI’s capabilities in some areas are impressive and growing, but humans are still more capable in many other areas, and when AI and humans come together in well-planned collaboration, we are more productive as a team than either would be separately. Introducing AI into our world of human work isn’t the beginning of the end for humans, but it isn’t a magic bullet either. As a society, we have some crucial decisions to make about how to plug AI into our workplaces if we want to prioritize equity, productivity, and innovation for the benefit of many more Americans. In this issue, we unpack the choices and explain why the time to discuss them is now.

The views expressed are not necessarily those of the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston or the Federal Reserve System. Information about organizations, programs, and events is strictly informational and not an endorsement.

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