By Paula Klein
Artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) algorithms are seeping into the workplace slowly but surely. They are automating repetitive tasks on Nissan’s factory floors, analyzing retail preferences at global e-tailers, and aiding hiring decisions around the world. Chat bots at Liberty Mutual’s claims department handle 150,000 calls per month, dramatically changing the nature of work and the face of the workforce. And these are still early-stage developments, according to speakers from these firms at MIT’s AI and Work of the Future Congress held November 21 in Cambridge, MA. Bigger breakthroughs are imminent.
Despite the rapid-fire pace of advancements, technology was less of a focus at this year’s Congress than the associated economic and social disruptions now under way. Most pressing are the immense business challenges coming to light: How to integrate new technologies into the current workforce and workplace, and how to transform organizations to accommodate the next wave of work.
What will jobs look like and who will be skilled to perform them in the next decade? What labor policies are needed to protect and train a fragmented, diverse workforce? How do we level the playing field? These were among the tough questions setting the tone for the day.
A Perilous Trajectory
Elisabeth Reynolds, Executive Director, MIT Task Force on the Work of the Future, (pictured with Andrew McAfee, above) framed the issues based on a report the task force recently released. She said the biggest concern is the decline of earnings growth and productivity since 1980. Wages are stagnant for most workers, and the situation is worse when considering race, geography, and demographics. “We stay on this trajectory at our own peril,” in terms of inequality and social costs, she said.
For instance, the workforce is aging, and fertility and immigration rates are down in the U.S. Automation may fill in for some worker gaps, but we also need ways to find new workers and to create meaningful jobs and job paths at all skill levels.
Summing up the conference, MIT Initiative on the Digital Economy co-director, Andrew McAfee, noted a shift from previous discussions about the future of work when “we had to make the case of technological change resulting from AI. Today, nobody had to make case. Everyone is now examining what to do about it. The conversation has moved to “this is critical. Let’s figure out what to do.”
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