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2018 Year in Review

December 24, 2018


In 2018 headlines were rife with warnings of AI and platform disruption. The mounting challenges of globalization, false news, and the future of work dominated the technology narrative. To make sense of it all, the MIT Initiative on the Digital Economy (IDE) expanded its work exploring the trends and impact of digital technologies on the global economy and societies. Our research helped guide leading businesses and policy makers, and our Inclusive Innovation Challenge (IIC) promoted international entrepreneurial ecosystems.

During the year, more than 2,000 thought leaders and industry experts gathered to tackle the most pressing challenges of the digital era, including AI and the future of work, and digital platform disruption. We increased the number of events and expanded the IIC in five global regions, culminating with the award of $1 million at the Global Grand Prize Gala at MIT in November.

Next year, look for MIT IDE events to focus on policy-making around AI and how to engage law-makers. We also will launch the Blockchain Research Pillar focused on broad-based applications of distributed ledger capabilities beyond cryptocurrencies such as complex supply chains, privacy protection, and quantum computing.

Here is a brief recap of some of our major accomplishments in 2018, and highlights from our research, education, and events this year.

  • In the MIT Analytics Lab (A-Lab), MIT Sloan School of Management student teams developed projects using analytics, machine learning, and other methods of analysis to uncover solutions to real business issues and opportunities. Projects this fall ranged from predicting the future of jobs based on ad postings, to optimizing the efficiency of matching in a two-sided marketplace, segmenting and classifying brick and mortar store visitors using Wi-Fi data, and predicting the risk of default using consumer transaction data. The winning team worked with a leading paint manufacturer in Latin America to determine the effectiveness of its marketing strategy using a customizable, image recognition tool to measure in-store brand presence.
  • The IDE initiated, continued, or completed more than two dozen research projects and publications. Among these are:
    • The Truth About False News by Sinan Aral, Soroush Vosoughi and Deb Roy The research revealed the truth about false news based on the largest-ever longitudinal study of the spread of false news online, published in Science on March 8, 2018. “The Spread of True and False News Online” investigated the differential diffusion of all the verified, true and false news stories distributed on Twitter from 2006 to 2017. The findings overturn conventional wisdom about how misinformation spreads, what causes it to spread so fast, and who or what is spreading it.
    • What Can Machines Learn and What Does it Mean for Occupations and the Economy?  by Erik Brynjolfsson, Tom Mitchell, and Daniel Rock     Rapid advances in machine learning (ML), many based on deep neural networks, are poised to generate significant economic value and transform numerous occupations and industries. Our research suggests that ML technologies will indeed grow more pervasive, but not uniformly. The team used data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics to understand the kind of tasks that typically make up a job and provided insight into the risk of automation of some 900 different professions.
    • The Potential of Cryptocurrencies by Alex “Sandy” Pentland and Alexander Lipton. The researchers contributed to a cover article for Scientific American on “The Future of Money.” Their article, Breaking the Bank, discussed how new financial networks could stop the concentration of wealth and increase participation in the economy–but only if used with care. A key finding was that new technologies, such as digital currencies, are making it possible to simulate every trade and transaction.
  • The IDE hosted the fifth annual workshop on platform-centered economics and management. We assembled a global community of executives to explore the economics and management of platform-centered markets and discuss their implications for managers, industry, and governmental policy. The IDE published a report of the valuable insights offered at the Summit.
  • The Conference on Digital Experimentation (CODE) brought together leading researchers conducting and analyzing large-scale, randomized experiments in digitally mediated social and economic environments. The event attracted more than 200 attendees from several scientific disciplines—including economics, computer science and sociology—to gain better insights into human behavior.

Cooler heads are prevailing. The constant drumbeat of machines taking our jobs has thankfully softened, and the hard work of harnessing technology for broader and more equal benefit is gaining traction. Our research is measuring the real impact of technology – at the macro level, and at the very granular level by geography, sector, and even the firm.