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The future of tech: "The Industrial Revolution on steroids"

At the 2023 SIEPR Economic Summit, leading experts on technology and the workplace took a mostly optimistic view of what lies ahead.

They are known as “AI winters” — when the promise of artificial intelligence isn’t living up to the hype. And for 40 years, that’s where moonshot dreams for AI languished, said John Hennessy, the chairman of Google parent Alphabet Inc. and former president of Stanford University.

Then came the launch late last year of ChatGPT, a form of so-called “generative AI” that can create its own text, images, and other forms of content.

We’re not going to see an AI winter for a while.

“This is going to be Industrial Revolution on steroids,” Hennessy told the hundreds of  policymakers, business leaders, and academics gathered for the 2023 SIEPR Economic Summit.

Hennessy’s enthusiasm was shared by his three fellow panelists on a session about the future of technology and its role in reimagining the workplace three years after COVID-19 lockdowns ushered in the work-from-home revolution.

“Almost every company, no matter if it’s a traditional company or a high-tech company, will have to look at how to leverage AI in every service and every product,” said Eric Yuan, the founder of Zoom. “That’s the opportunity. At the same time, it’s also the challenge.”

Nick Bloom, the William Eberle Professor of Economics at the Stanford School of Humanities and Sciences and SIEPR senior fellow who moderated the discussion, said generative AI could very well be the first major inflection point for productivity growth in nearly 70s years.

“There’s only been two turning points in the last several hundred years,” Bloom said. “We may be on the cusp of a third.”

The impact on jobs

There’s likely to be some pain along the way, the panelists agreed. But they agreed that ChatGPT won’t be the jobs boogeyman that many fear.

Karin Kimbrough, the chief economist at LinkedIn and member of SIEPR's Advisory Board, said generative AI will, for many workers, become “their co-pilot” at work — freeing them to do the abstract thinking that computers can’t. The key is to make sure that workers, especially older ones, have the opportunity to acquire the technical skills so that technology serves as a complement to them and not a substitute for them.

“We have a [higher education] system where we say, ‘You should finish all your learning by age 24 and then go off and just be smart for the rest of your career, which makes no sense,” she said.

The future of work from home

Workers love the flexibility of working from home. Employers are far less enthralled — and are, Kimbrough said, “very aggressively” moving away from remote work. And with offices only about 20-30 percent full, Kimbrough said most CEOs “are not pleased that people don’t want to come in five days a week.”

Bloom said the slowdown in the tech sector, and the likelihood of a recession, are giving employers more leverage. Ultimately, however, their pushback will be short-lived.

“If you’re looking five, 10 years out, there will be more rather than less working from home,” Bloom said.

Watch the full discussion.