Robot Census: Gathering Data to Improve Policymaking on New Technologies
— February 2, 2021
By Robert Seamans
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.
While these new data are a promising step, there is still a need for a large-scale survey of technology use across multiple sectors of the economy. Congress should fund the U.S. Census Bureau to collect this data. The work that Census has done so far—for example by collecting data on the purchase and use of robotics in the manufacturing sector, via its Annual Survey of Manufacturing—provides a blueprint for how this can be done across other sectors of the economy. With better data, researchers will be able to measure the effects of these technologies on a range of issues including productivity, employment, training, inequality and regional competitiveness, and policy makers will be able to develop well-informed policy—or tweak, update, or eliminate existing policy.
Read the full Brookings Institution article.
Robert Seamans is Associate Professor of Management and Organizations.