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Photo by Jonah M. Kessel/The New York Times.
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China faces rising labor costs and a shortage of workers. But a government project called “replacing humans with robots” is trying to change the face of the work force in Guangdong Province.
There is no shortage of angst about the relentless advance of digital technology and what it means for the work force, if not humanity. Dire warnings have come from no less than Elon Musk, Stephen Hawking and Bill Gates. “Summoning the demon” was Mr. Musk’s evocative phrase to describe the potential danger posed by artificial intelligence.
A group of academics, Silicon Valley venture capitalists and executives acknowledged the issue this week, when they posted an open letter in an effort to start a national discussion on modernizing policy for the digital economy. Past waves of technological change, they noted, have delivered new jobs and higher wages. “This time around,” they wrote, “the evidence is causing some people to wonder if things are different. Or, to paraphrase many recent headlines, will robots eat our jobs?”
Not necessarily, according to two new entries to the technology-and-labor debate. One is a lengthy cover article in the June issue of The Harvard Business Review, “Beyond Automation: Strategies for Remaining Gainfully Employed in an Era of Very Smart Machines.” The other is a study, published late Wednesday, by the McKinsey Global Institute, the research arm of the consulting firm McKinsey & Company, “A Labor Market That Works: Connecting Talent With Opportunity in the Digital Age.”
The McKinsey study analyzes and forecasts the potential impact of so-called digital talent platforms. The report looks at three types of such platforms: job-finding and employee-seeking websites (such as Monster.com and LinkedIn); marketplaces for services (Uber and Upwork, for example); and data-driven talent discovery tools (like Evolv and Knack).
By 2025, McKinsey estimates, these digital talent platforms could add $2.7 trillion a year to global gross domestic product, which would be the equivalent of adding another Britain to the world economy. And the digital tools, the report states, could benefit as many as 540 million people in various ways, including better matches of their skills with jobs, higher wages and shorter stints of unemployment.
Companies that make efficient use of the digital platforms, McKinsey says, can increase their productivity by up to 9 percent by hiring the right workers for jobs more often and more quickly.
The research, said James Manyika, a director of the McKinsey Global Institute and a co-author, took a bottom-up approach. There was a close analysis of the labor markets in seven countries and of the inroads digital platforms have made in national markets and within specific companies. The projections, he said, were based on “very modest assumptions,” typically improvements of a few percent compared with the baseline of current performance.
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Steve Lohr is a technology and economics reporter for The New York Times. To check out his articles, please click here.