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More data could help predict robots’ effects on job market, CMU professor says

Aaron Aupperlee
PizzaMakingRobotsJPEG1d4db1
In this Monday, Aug. 29, 2016 photo, a robot places a pizza into an oven at Zume Pizza in Mountain View, Calif. The startup, which began delivery in April, is using intelligent machines to grab a slice of the multi-billion-dollar pizza delivery market. Zume is one of a growing number of food-tech firms seeking to disrupt the restaurant industry with software and robots that let them cut costs, speed production and improve worker safety. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)
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FILE - In this Nov. 11, 2014 file photo, robots install rivets on a 2015 Ford F-150 truck at the Dearborn Truck Plant in Dearborn, Mich. Cheaper, better robots will replace human workers in the world's factories at a faster pace over the next decade, pushing manufacturing labor costs down 16 percent, a report from the Boston Consulting Group said Tuesday, Feb. 10, 2015. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya, File)

Advancements in technology, automation and robotics will change the nature of our workforce.

That is all but certain.

But to what extent — how many jobs will it eliminate, create or change — will be difficult to determine, said Tom Mitchell, a professor of machine learning at Carnegie Mellon University who co-directed a new study on the effect of innovation on the workforce.

“We’re way undersupplied with data to really understand what’s going on,” Mitchell told the Tribune-Review while discussing a column that he and Erik Brynjolfsson, an MIT professor, published Thursday in the journal Nature.

The study’s co-directors say we’re flying blind into an industrial revolution driven by innovation in robotics and automation.

“Flying blind means we don’t even know the current state today,” he said.

READ: Track how technology is transforming work

We’re not collecting, merging and analyzing the right data to make sound decisions and policy heading into what is being called the fourth industrial revolution, Mitchell and Brynjolfsson said. The government needs to be prepared to help people get the training, services and programs required to fill the new employment demands, they said.

“Really, it’s time for the government to get its act together,” Mitchell said, adding that government could learn a lot about making data-driven decisions from private companies.

The government, he said, should be collecting data such as employment metrics about people driving for Uber or working in the gig economy for services like Upwork.com, which matches computer programmers with people who need programming work. And it should harness the vast amounts of data on Facebook, Amazon, internet job posting services and more to add to its data, he said.

For example, Mitchell said, imagine if you merged data from an online job site with community college data. A job site has data on what jobs are available, people’s backgrounds, education and skills and info about who gets what jobs. A community college knows who is taking job training courses and the kind. Merge that data, and you could develop a tool that shows how workers moved from one job to another.

Mitchell understands that some people would be wary of giving the government access to their data. He said that for society to support it, the government would have to show a real benefit from the data.

“I think, in this case, there is,” Mitchell said. “It’s a trade-off, not a black-and-white issue. The government can help us.”

Mitchell said he and Brynjolfsson worked on the study for about two years. Innovation will replace some workers, Mitchell said, like tollbooth operators. It will also help us do our jobs better, like doctors who could use artificial intelligence and machine learning to make better diagnoses, and create new jobs, like people driving for Uber.

“We don’t know which of these three things are going to be the most common for which type of jobs,” Mitchell said.

It’s OK to be concerned about that uncertainty, Mitchell said. He said he was concerned when he started his work, but after two years he’s a little more optimistic about our future alongside robots.

He’d just like more data to be sure.

Aaron Aupperlee is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach Aupperlee at [email protected] or 412-336-8448.

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