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Humans, Machines and the Digital Economy Spark Davos Debates

January 25, 2016

The societal benefits as well as the challenges of the digital economy were underscored by MIT IDE speakers at several panels during the World Economic Forum in Davos last week.

As part of a wide-ranging Accenture-sponsored panel on People, Machines and the Digital Era, MIT IDE co-director, Andrew McAfee, emphasized the core points of the Second Machine Age book he co-authored, noting that not everyone is benefitting equally from digital technologies and automation. Worsening the situation, countries worldwide are doing a poor job of retooling educational systems to meet the job requirements of the future.

Nevertheless, panelist said that consumers and workers are becoming more comfortable with digital technologies.

New Accenture research shows that 60% of employees surveyed see technology improving their own jobs, while half said digital technologies will create new employment opportunities.

Currently, McAfee sees more societal benefits than actual revenue-enhancing benefits from digital technologies. At the same time, he expects the service sector to grow and show significant productivity gains in the next five to ten years as the Internet of Things and machine learning become more ubiquitous. To fully realize these markets, “leaders must see the opportunities” automation presents beyond single products or applications, he said.


Accenture Panelists in Davos (from left): Paul Daugherty, David Kirkpatrick, Anand Shah and Andrew McAfee.


David Kirkpatrick, Founder and CEO of Techonomy Media, noted that one huge challenge is boosting technology-driven capabilities while respecting privacy. “Industry is not doing a good job of that right now.”

Creating “digital trust” is a growing concern that business and policy leaders also need to address, said panel moderator, Paul Daugherty, Chief Technology Officer at Accenture. “It goes beyond cyber-business and into all phases of society.”

Yet panelists were optimistic about human/machine interactions and believe that gains of all types will become unequivocable. For example,  if drones and autonomous vehicles were used 90% of the time, they would reduce gas emissions by 90%, said Anand Shah, Senior Director for Digital Transformation at Accenture.“The technology is already here to do this,” he said.

McAfee extended the example of curbing emissions a step further stating:“There is no way we can collectively tread more lightly on this planet without using robotic vehicles.”

In Kirkpatrick’s view, “Technology will change the nature of jobs before it eliminates them.” Workers realize they have to live in a society that has systems to help them, but it’s up to business and political leaders to realize the scope of the change and to prepare the workforce with appropriate skills. Talent acquisition itself will require expanded thinking and new domains, according to McAfee. “The single hardest thing [to overcome] in organizations is the notion that they know where the smart people are, where the experts are.” That long-held notion has to be debunked. “If you think you know where all the answers reside, you’re probably wrong.”

Organizations need to become more permeable and tap into the talent of crowds, McAfee said. Then, they need to to combine that wisdom with core expertise; “Your rolodex won’t cut it anymore.”

Meanwhile, elsewhere at Davos, Erik Brynjolfsson, Director of the MIT IDE and co-author with McAfee of The Second Machine Age, also spoke about automation, AI and the workforce of the future.

Man V. Machine: Does it have to be either/or? was the topic of a panel sponsored by Financial Times and Wipro. Joining Brynjolfsson were: David Cheesewright, Walmart International; Peter Brabeck-Letmathe, Chairman, Nestle Group; Tim Brown, CEO of the global design and innovation agency, IDEO, and T.K. Kurien, of Wipro. FT’s Murad Ahmed, European Technology Correspondent, moderated the discussion which focused on the effects of digital disintermediation, advanced robotics and the sharing economy on productivity growth, job creation and purchasing power. More details can be found here.

Ahmed also interviewed Brynjolfsson about the rise of artificial intelligence, how it will transform industries around the world and what the second wave of robotics entails. Responding to a question about AI’s history of false starts,

Brynolfsson said that “even during AI winters, the technology was progressing quietly even if it wasn’t in the headlines.” The proliferation of driverless cars, talking phones and online disease diagnostics are tangible evidence, he said.

Other examples of how far AI has progressed can be found in machines that think and learn. “In the first wave, we had to code and teach machines,” he said. “Now, they recognize faces and can teach themselves new tasks. That’s fundamentally different than anything we’ve seen before.” At the same time, Brynolfsson isn’t worried yet about humans becoming redundant to machines. “Many robots can’t walk up stairs or pick up a dime. Humans also have advantages in creativity, interpersonal skills and managing others—for now.” But policymakers have to take seriously the rapid advancements under way, he warned.

Watch the interview in full here and also this panel with Erik, here.