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The Next Phase in the Digital Revolution: Intelligent Tools, Platforms, Growth, Employment

By John Zysman, Martin Kenney

Communications of the ACM, Vol. 61 No. 2, Pages 54-63

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Digital Platforms in the computing "cloud" are fundamental features of the digital revolution, entangled with what we term "intelligent tools." An abundance of computing power enabling generation and analysis of data on a scale never before imagined permits the reorganization/transformation of services and manufacturing. Here, we expand two central issues raised in our 2016 article "The Rise of the Platform Economy."13 First, will the increased movement of work to digital platforms provide real and rising incomes with reasonable levels of equality? The productivity possibilities of the digital era are just coming into view. The consequences will be a matter of policy and corporate strategy. Much will depend on how intelligent tools, including big data analytics, artificial intelligence, robotics, and sensors will coalesce into systems that appear to be nearly autonomous. The goal of firms could be to simply displace work and remove human intelligence from work tasks. Alternatively, it is possible for intelligent tools to help augment intelligence and capabilities, supporting rather than displacing workforce abilities. Moreover, as communities, is it possible to choose the kind of society that will result from the digital "platform economy." Digital technology does not, in and of itself, dictate a single answer. The increasing diffusion of intelligent tools has already exposed tension between public governance and private governance of platforms. The significance is that a platform's operation sets the rules and parameters of participant action. Digital platforms are regulatory structures and, thus, governance systems. Policy cannot just adapt to the emergence of the digital economy and society. Policy choices are indeed part of the technological trajectories themselves.

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Key Insights


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The Basics

It is not necessary to review the digital technologies themselves. The goal is rather to explore their economic and social implications. This phase of the digital era rests on cloud computing facilitated by the increasing abundance of inexpensive computational power, storage, and transmission resources. Gradually, but inexorably, the exponential increase in computing capabilities, noted in popular media through reference to Moore's Law and the consequences of doubling processing power every two years, and with data storage on a roughly similar trajectory, has changed the game, even as these dynamics continue their rate of change. Lifting constraints opened the current digital era, as characterized by platforms, big data, algorithmic power, and intelligent tools.


Rudolf Olah

Speaking to the dangers of automation and the politics of who controls the platforms and the direction that they decide to move it is this new newsletter about exactly that issue: https://tinyletter.com/FullyAutomated/letters/the-design-of-technology-should-be-under-workers-control

In the latest newsletter it points out that the design of technology should be under the control of workers since they are more likely to use automation and AI to augment their own skills.

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