How can technology continue to drive positive progress in our world? Do we need to constrain growth or embrace it in order to improve both the human condition and the state of nature?
These are questions Andrew McAfee has studied at the MIT Initiative on the Digital Economy (IDE) for many years. Now he has launched a research group, Tech for Good, to amplify the IDE’s ongoing premise that “we need faster, more inclusive technology progress and access– not a slowdown–to meet the needs of today and of the future.” AI, machine learning, automation, reskilling, and retraining are the tools to drive job creation and stronger, more inclusive economy—especially in the post-pandemic economy, he said.
McAfee understands that we need to constantly reframe the conversation and reexamine our tools and our goals. There are inequities, misuse, and overuse to monitor. However, McAfee wants to ensure that innovation drives broad, positive progress in our economy, society, and environment.
Here are some highlights of a conversation with McAfee and Paula Klein, Editor and Content Manager at the IDE, discussing the new research group.
Q: What is the motivation for the Tech for Good research group right now? You have long described yourself as a tech optimist. Give us a sense of the timing and urgency.
AM: There are clearly challenges now that speak to the human condition—poverty, health—where people are left behind. Also, we have to address the environmental problems we’ve caused. There has to be change. The post-pandemic economy clearly requires a reset of business-as-usual thinking. The IDE has always seen technology tools as a means to fuel progress and improvements. The problems are real, but the conversation lately has become too negative. As I describe in my recent book, More From Less, a lot of evidence points to optimism. As the title implies, if we want better outcomes, we need more AI and tech progress, not less, and we have the resources to do it.
Q: What are some specific takeaways for executives and other IDE stakeholders — both at high tech and legacy firms? How can they adapt their organizations and their industries so that we all benefit from technology?
AM: This research group is more a clarification and amplification of the IDE’s ongoing goals: AI, machine learning, automation, reskilling, and retraining are the tools for economic progress, inclusive innovation, and job creation—especially as we recover from the pandemic and recession. Even Augmented Reality, Virtual Reality, and quantum computing are in the mix—tech advances are accelerating rapidly; there’s a wave of tech already washing over us. We need a true transformation to meet these advances. Industrial-era leadership and organizations are over; they don’t work anymore.
When I talk to business leaders, we discuss why yesterday’s training, skills development, and human capital approaches are out of date. College degrees are not the only path to today’s jobs; there are other ways to demonstrate skill competency and to assess skills and promote from within. Automation can create jobs as well as displacing them.
Q: You are also a member of the Coalition for Inclusive Capitalism. Can you explain that concept?
AM: We can have both vibrant, private sector capitalism and government programs. Both are needed to move us forward. For a long time, economist took for granted the idea of Tech for Good. Now we need to clearly and loudly state that the popular notion that technology is heading in the wrong direction is mistaken. Innovation and growth are not the enemies: they work. At the IDE we’re not blind cheerleaders, but we are pro-technology and we have research and data to back that up. We want to spread the idea of making everyone rich, not making the rich poor.
Q: What else do you hope the new research group achieves?
AM: It’s still early but we are joining coalitions such as the Inclusive Capitalism Coalition and the Breakthrough Institute—which promotes tech solutions to climate and environmental challenges– to get the word out. IDE Research Scientist, Jonathan Ruane, is also on the research team to help explain why the anti- growth, anti-prosperity crowd is wrong.