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New Interviews: Erik Brynjolfsson Speaks Out on Jobs and AI

September 05, 2017


To kick off a new series, “Is My Job Safe?” NPR’s Ari Shapiro asked Erik Brynjolfsson, director of the MIT Initiative on the Digital Economy, to explain whether artificial intelligence is threatening our jobs.

In the September 4 interview, Brynjolfsson said that new jobs are being created and old jobs are being automated all the time.  “And that’s going to happen in the next 10 years,” too. “I wouldn’t be surprised if 50 percent or more of the existing jobs had to change drastically or were eliminated. And hopefully another 50 percent of new jobs will be created at the same time.”

Here are some other highlights from the Q&A:

NPR: What do you see as the sector of the workforce that is least likely to change or least likely to disappear?

BRYNJOLFSSON: Well, there are three big categories that machines are really bad at. They’ve made tremendous advances, but they’re bad at first off doing creative work. Whether you’re an entrepreneur, or a scientist, or a novelist, I think you’re in pretty good shape doing that long-range creativity. The second big category is interpersonal skills and emotional intelligence–people who are coaches, or salespeople, or negotiators, or caregivers. And the third one is actually manual dexterity and physical mobility. Machines have a hard time doing simple things like picking up a nickel, or walking up stairs, or clearing a table.

So jobs that depend on those abilities will also be safe for a while. And I think the right way to think about it is not so much looking at jobs, but looking at tasks, because almost every job has parts in one of those three categories, or maybe all three, and other parts that will be affected or even automated.

…There’s probably no better time in history to be somebody with some real creative insights. And then the technology helps you leverage that to millions, or billions of people. People who can combine some creativity with an understanding of the digital world are especially well-positioned.


In another recent interview, Undark, asked Brynjolffson Five Questions about how software platforms are shifting ideas about traditional business models, how far AI and machine learning have come, and what obstacles remain. Here are a few key takeaways:

  •  Every company should be thinking about whether they can either create a platform or be part of platforms, or both.
  • It’s just recently that there’s been a critical mass of improvements in computer power, data, and improvements to algorithms. Those three things have led to an inflection point in AI where it’s really exceeded the expectations of a lot of the people who had been working on it.
  • We should focus on finding ways that we can use technology to create widely shared prosperity that benefits the many and not just a few. This involves rethinking our educational system; boosting entrepreneurship, so we can invent more new products, services, and jobs that will employ people; making the tax system less skewed towards the wealthy; and making new investments in research and development and infrastructure.