Essay by Robert Seamans: There is understandable excitement about the impact that new technologies like artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics will have on our economy. In our everyday lives, we already see the benefits of these technologies: when we use our smartphones to navigate from one location to another using the fastest available route or when a predictive typing algorithm helps us finish a sentence in our email. At the same time, there are concerns about possible negative effects of these new technologies on labor. The Council of Economic Advisers of the past two Administrations have addressed these issues in the annual Economic Report of the President (ERP). For example, the 2016 ERP included a chapter on technology and innovation that linked robotics to productivity and growth, and the 2019 ERP included a chapter on artificial intelligence that discussed the uneven effects of technological change. Both these chapters used data at highly aggregated levels, in part because that is the data that is available. As I’ve noted elsewhere, AI and robots are everywhere, except, as it turns out, in the data.
To date, there have been no large scale, systematic studies in the U.S. on how robots and AI affect productivity and labor in individual firms or establishments (a firm could own one or more establishments, which for example could be a plant in a manufacturing setting or a storefront in a retail setting). This is because the data are scarce. Academic researchers interested in the effects of AI and robotics on economic outcomes have mostly used aggregate country and industry-level data. Very recently, some have studied these issues at the firm level using data on robot imports to France, Spain, and other countries. I review a few of these academic papers in both categories below, which provide early findings on the nuanced role these new technologies have on labor. Thanks to some excellent work being done by the U.S. Census Bureau, however, we may soon have more data to work with. This includes new questions on robot purchases in the Annual Survey of Manufacturers and Annual Capital Expenditures Survey and new questions on other technologies including cloud computing and machine learning in the Annual Business Survey….(More)”.