Erik Brynjolfsson

With the ever-growing influence of technology on business and society, how will advancements like artificial intelligence (AI) impact how we work and conduct business? The New York Times bestselling author Erik Brynjolfsson (pronounced brin-YOLF-son) – director of the Stanford University Digital Economy Lab at the Institute for Human-Centered Artificial Intelligence and senior fellow at the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research – sees both great opportunities and challenges ahead.

An optimistic economist, Brynjolfsson’s predicts a productivity boom in the coming decade driven by the combination of new technologies and business transformation. His research examines the effects of information technologies on business strategy, productivity, performance, digital commerce, and intangible assets. He says AI and machine learning are igniting a business revolution that will be more disruptive than any other tech-driven transformation in history. With these changes disproportionately affecting knowledge work, Brynjolfsson urges leaders to view emerging technology as an opportunity, not an obstacle. He offers decision makers a roadmap to restructuring the right way, especially since companies will still need people with creative, interpersonal and problem-solving skills to work alongside AI. Not doing so can lead to negative socio-economic outcomes and increased inequality.

The Future of Work with AI Is about Reorganization, Not Replacement

With the rise of AI systems, especially programs like ChatGPT and Midjourney, which generate novel text and images respectively, Brynjolfsson predicts that 50-60% of the workforce will be impacted by AI. To help leaders anticipate the coming changes, he and his team looked at 18,000 tasks and developed a set of rubrics to examine how emerging technologies like generative AI, robotics, and remote work will affect specific industries and jobs.

“None of these technologies can do everything, but many will impact some tasks immensely while other tasks won’t be affected at all,” explains Brynjolfsson, whose bestselling books co-authored with Andrew McAfee, “Machine, Platform, Crowd: Harnessing Our Digital Future” (2018) and “The Second Machine Age: Work, Progress, and Prosperity in a Time of Brilliant Technologies” (2014), capture his innovative approach to leveraging technology for long-term business benefits. “Leaders must recognize that implementing new technology will be much more about restructuring and reorganizing work, not mass replacement or unemployment.”

While there will be many positive benefits of AI, such as more productivity and problem solving for issues in health, welfare and the environment, for example, Brynjolfsson is careful to point out that new opportunities for abuse by bad actors will arise as well.

“AI is so powerful and so poorly understood that it can end up causing real damage by creating misinformation, propaganda and phishing attacks,” cautions Brynjolfsson, the most widely cited scholar on the economics of AI and digital technologies. “Right now, there aren’t enough resources going into safety and regulation.”

What to Do When GDP Doesn’t Tell the Whole Story

Another area technology increasingly touches, often in unquantified ways, is world economies, and Brynjolfsson advocates for a new way to set of metrics that do a better job of measuring not only technology’s contributions to the economy. Traditionally, a country’s GDP is based on goods and services that are bought and sold within the economy. But, he says, with few exceptions those measures don’t account for goods with zero price, including many goods in the digital economy, such as attending a Zoom meeting and using free apps on a smartphone.

The solution he proposes is a new economic measure, GDP-B: which provides a measure of the benefits of digital goods and services, not simply the cost. With this tool, leaders are able to assess the value consumers are gaining, even when they’re not paying for something.

“Big chunks of what are important in the economy are not measured in traditional statistics,” explains Brynjolfsson, a four-time Thinkers50 Top Management Thinker. “More and more companies have a lot of valuable products they don’t charge for. It’s very useful for leaders to know which parts of their company’s product line create value and which don’t, separate from what people are paying for. It’s vital for governments, agencies and companies alike to understand what’s really valuable.”

AI Technology Is More Transformative Than Even the Internet

With the true scope of the influence of emerging technologies becoming evident worldwide and in all sectors of government, business and society, Brynjolfsson advises leaders about the macro changes to come, offering clarity and a much-needed reality check.

“AI is a transformative technology that will have a bigger impact than just about any earlier wave of technology up to and including the Internet,” he concludes. “It’s really hard to think of any industry that won’t be affected.”