Blog Post

The coming productivity boom

AI and other digital technologies have been surprisingly slow to improve economic growth. But that could be about to change.

By: and Date: June 10, 2021 Topic: Digital economy and innovation

This blog was originally published on the MIT Technology Review.

 

The last 15 years have been tough times for many Americans, but there are now encouraging signs of a turnaround.

Productivity growth, a key driver for higher living standards, averaged only 1.3% since 2006, less than half the rate of the previous decade. But on June 3, the US Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that US labour productivity increased by 5.4% in the first quarter of 2021. What’s better, there’s reason to believe that this is not just a blip, but rather a harbinger of better times ahead: a productivity surge that will match or surpass the boom times of the 1990s.

Annual Labour Productivity Growth, 2001 – 2021 Q1

For much of the past decade, productivity growth has been sluggish, but now there are signs it’s picking up. (Source: US Bureau of Labor Statistics)

Our optimism is grounded in our research which indicates that most OECD countries are just passing the lowest point in a productivity J-curve. Driven by advances in digital technologies, such as artificial intelligence, productivity growth is now headed up.

Technology alone is rarely enough to create significant benefits.

The productivity J-curve describes the historical pattern of initially slow productivity growth after a breakthrough technology is introduced, followed years later by a sharp take-off. Our research and that of others has found that technology alone is rarely enough to create significant benefits. Instead, technology investments must be combined with even larger investments in new business processes, skills, and other types of intangible capital before breakthroughs as diverse as the steam engine or computers ultimately boost productivity. For instance, after electricity was introduced to American factories, productivity was stagnant for more than two decades. It was only after managers reinvented their production lines using distributed machinery, a technique made possible by electricity, that productivity surged.

There are three reasons that this time around the productivity J-curve will be bigger and faster than in the past.

The first is technological: the past decade has delivered an astonishing cluster of technology breakthroughs. The most important ones are in AI: the development of machine learning algorithms combined with large decline in prices for data storage and improvements in computing power has allowed firms to address challenges from vision and speech to prediction and diagnosis. The fast-growing cloud computing market has made these innovations accessible to smaller firms.

Significant innovations have also happened in biomedical sciences and energy. In drug discovery and development, new technologies have allowed researchers to optimise the design of new drugs and predict the 3D structures of proteins. At the same time, breakthrough vaccine technology using messenger RNA has introduced a revolutionary approach that could lead to effective treatments for many other diseases. Moreover, major innovations have led to the steep decline in the price of solar energy and the sharp increase in its energy conversion efficiency rate with serious implications for the future of the energy sector as well as for the environment.

The costs of covid-19 have been tragic, but the pandemic has also compressed a decade’s worth of digital innovation in areas like remote work into less than a year. What’s more, evidence suggests that even after the pandemic, a significant fraction of work will be done remotely, while a new class of high-skill service workers, the digital nomads, is emerging.

As a result, the biggest productivity impact of the pandemic will be realised in the longer-run. Even technology sceptics like Robert Gordon are more optimistic this time. The digitisation and reorganisation of work has brought us to a turning point in the productivity J-curve.

The third reason to be optimistic about productivity has to do with the aggressive fiscal and monetary policy being implemented in the US. The recent covid-19 relief package is likely to reduce the unemployment rate from 5.8% (in May 2021) to the historically low pre-covid levels in the neighbourhood of 4%. Running the economy hot with full employment can accelerate the arrival of the productivity boom. Low unemployment levels drive higher wages which means firms have more incentive to harvest the potential benefits of technology to further improve productivity.

When you put these three factors together—the bounty of technological advances, the compressed restructuring timetable due to COVID-19, and an economy finally running at full capacity—the ingredients are in place for a productivity boom. This will not only boost living standards directly, but also frees up resources for a more ambitious policy agenda.


Republishing and referencing

Bruegel considers itself a public good and takes no institutional standpoint. Anyone is free to republish and/or quote this post without prior consent. Please provide a full reference, clearly stating Bruegel and the relevant author as the source, and include a prominent hyperlink to the original post.

Read about event More on this topic
 

Upcoming Event

May
18
09:30

Adapting to European technology regulation: A conversation with Brad Smith, President of Microsoft

Invitation-only event featuring Brad Smith, President and Vice Chair of Microsoft who will discuss regulating big tech in the context of Europe's digital transformation

Speakers: Maria Demertzis and Brad Smith Topic: Digital economy and innovation Location: Bibliothéque Solvay, Rue Belliard 137A, 1000 Bruxelles
Read article More on this topic
 

Blog Post

Insights for successful enforcement of Europe’s Digital Markets Act

The European Commission will enforce digital competition rules against big tech; internally, it should ensure a dedicated process and teams; externally, it should ensure cooperation with other jurisdictions and coherence with other digital policies.

By: Christophe Carugati and Catarina Martins Topic: Digital economy and innovation Date: May 11, 2022
Read about event More on this topic
 

Upcoming Event

Jun
7
10:30

Future of Work and Inclusive Growth Annual Conference

Annual Conference of the Future of Work and Inclusive Growth project

Speakers: Erik Brynjolfsson, Francis Green, Ivailo Kalfin, Laura Nurski, J. Scott Marcus, Anoush Margaryan, Julia Nania, Poon King Wang and Fabian Stephany Topic: Digital economy and innovation Location: Bruegel, Rue de la Charité 33, 1210 Brussels
Read about event More on this topic
 

Past Event

Past Event

COVID-19 and the shift to working from home: differences between the US and the EU

What changes has working from home brought on for workers and societies, and how can policy catch up?

Speakers: Jose Maria Barrero, Mamta Kapur, J. Scott Marcus and Laura Nurski Topic: Inclusive growth Location: Bruegel, Rue de la Charité 33, 1210 Brussels Date: April 28, 2022
Read article More on this topic
 

Blog Post

The decoupling of Russia: European vulnerabilities in the high-tech sector

Although Russia bears the brunt of Western high-tech sanctions, the European Union will face challenges in sectors where it relies on Russian and Ukrainian commodities and technologies.

By: Monika Grzegorczyk, J. Scott Marcus, Niclas Poitiers and Pauline Weil Topic: Global economy and trade Date: April 12, 2022
Read article More by this author
 

Podcast

Podcast

What to expect from China's innovation drive?

How much has China progressed technologically?

By: The Sound of Economics Topic: Digital economy and innovation, Global economy and trade Date: April 6, 2022
Read article More on this topic More by this author
 

Opinion

Global chip shortage may soon turn into an oversupply crisis

Only companies investing in advanced semiconductors will see their margins increase.

By: Alicia García-Herrero Topic: Global economy and trade Date: February 25, 2022
Read article More on this topic More by this author
 

Opinion

Will this be the century of youthful Asia?

Youthful Asia offers immense opportunities for investors, but this potential can only be realised if their infrastructure and energy needs are fulfilled.

By: Alicia García-Herrero Topic: Global economy and trade Date: February 18, 2022
Read article More on this topic
 

Blog Post

Venture capital: a new breath of life for European entrepreneurship?

Whether the dynamism of European venture capital of the past two years can be sustained and kick start a credible alternative to bank finance in the European Union remains to be seen.

By: Maria Demertzis and Lionel Guetta-Jeanrenaud Topic: Banking and capital markets Date: February 10, 2022
Read article More on this topic More by this author
 

Blog Post

The dark side of artificial intelligence: manipulation of human behaviour

Transparency over systems and algorithms, rules and public awareness are needed to address potential danger of manipulation by artificial intelligence.

By: Georgios Petropoulos Topic: Digital economy and innovation Date: February 2, 2022
Read article More on this topic
 

External Publication

How fast is this novel technology going to be a hit? Antecedents predicting follow-on inventions

In this paper, the authors identify novel technologies on a large-scale and map their re-use trajectories.

By: Michele Pezzoni, Reinhilde Veugelers and Fabiana Visentin Topic: Digital economy and innovation Date: December 22, 2021
Read article Download PDF More on this topic
 

Working Paper

Market power and artificial intelligence work on online labour markets

In this working paper, the authors investigate three alternative but complementary indicators of market power on one of the largest online labour markets (OLMs) in Europe.

By: Néstor Duch-Brown, Estrella Gomez-Herrera, Frank Mueller-Langer and Songül Tolan Topic: Digital economy and innovation Date: December 16, 2021
Load more posts