Lee Branstetter is a Professor of economics and public policy at Carnegie Mellon University’s Heinz College. He is also the Director of the Center for the Future of Work. In this interview, he discusses a new initiative and his views on disruptive innovations that may shape the future of work.
What is your background briefly?
I have a Ph.D. in economics from Harvard. Over my roughly 25-year academic career, I have studied the economics of innovation and technology diffusion, both within and across countries.
Does it seem like a logical background to what you do now?
Yes. New technology has profoundly reshaped the US labour market over the past 40 years, and will continue to do so.Describe your role as Director of the Center for the Future of Work and your new initiative.
As Director, I am the research team leader on a number of current projects, and I have also played a role in informing the public of our activities, raising money from science agencies and local foundations, and connecting our work to other initiatives across campus.
We have a diverse range of research projects that seek to combine Carnegie Mellon University’s special strength in technology (especially in computer science related disciplines) with its strong community of quantitative social scientists, so that we can better predict technology-driven disruption and develop smart, focused public policy interventions to minimise the negative social impact of this disruption.
What led you and your team to investigate the impact of disruptive innovations in university labs and corporate R&D centres that may transform work?
A generation of research in labor economics reveals that technological progress in the advanced economies has had a profound skill bias – these changes have heightened demand for the most skilled workers and weakened demand for less skilled workers – generating an increase in income inequality that we seek throughout the Western world. Already, this expansion of inequality is putting pressure on our democratic systems. Policymakers need a broader range of tools to use in dealing with this. That is ultimately what we seek to provide. Here in Southwestern Pennsylvania, where the economic pain generated by the downsizing of traditional industries is quite apparent, we hope to use our close relationships with government and nonprofits to turn the region into a kind of test bed for new policy solutions. If we can “fix” the industrial Midwest, we will have made great progress in fixing what ails America.
How will capable machines affect the future of work?
This is something that remains to be seen, and our ability to anticipate the impact is quite limited at the moment. Recent advances in autonomous vehicle technology strongly suggest that self-driving trucks will be one disruptive innovation we may see relatively soon on the highways of North America and Western Europe. It is far less clear what other domains face near-term disruption.
What are the social and economic consequences of disruptive innovations that may transform work?
Disruptive innovations advance economic growth and raise productivity at the national level, but they often leave groups of workers whose fortunes and careers are tied to now-obsolete technologies worse off. We need a better way of dealing with those who are being left behind. We need to make growth more inclusive. We hope to accomplish this goal by combining expertise in technology with quantitative social science acumen.