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Securing the Future of Workers

April 26, 2019


Medical and factory robots, autonomous trucks, and algorithmic trading technologies are already amping up modern businesses and offering a glimpse of more automation to come. Productivity and efficiency gains are unprecedented, but true human-machine collaboration is less certain. Some workers feel like their robot counterparts: whether they’re flipping burgers or assembling cars, work is often rote and rapid-paced. And how do we assess progress when wages trail productivity and life-long employees—from truckers to paralegals– feel useless?

These are some of the provocative questions raised in an hour-long program on The Future of Work produced for HBO’s VICE news, though it was short on solutions. The Special Report aired on April 19 and featured several MIT economists and roboticists.

MIT IDE co-director, Andrew McAfee, explains that in the past monotonous, low-level tasks could be turned over to machines while humans concentrated on work that required judgment, creativity, and emotional intelligence. But as AI and machine learning become more proficient, he acknowledges that these rules of thumb have changed: “Computers are often as good as, or better than, humans in judgment” and other advanced tasks.

The program noted the challenges of embracing technological advancement and also keeping humans productively, gainfully employed. How will humans excel when machine learning, neural networks, deep learning, speech and facial recognition advance in double-time? Industries such as law, medicine, and finance are simultaneously awed by the efficiency and precision of AI and robotics and afraid of the displacement of white-collar workers. Robotic surgeon arms don’t get tired, feel unsteady, or become distracted; and algorithms are making savvy trades from human-free stock exchange floors. McKinsey data shows that 22% of a lawyer’s job, 35% of a paralegal’s job can be automated today, but lawyers will still be needed to handle complex negotiations and try cases, according to the program. Widespread, systemic changes are taking place.

Beyond technology, reporters tackled the difficult issues of job displacement and retraining. Experts agreed that retraining legacy industry workers in coding languages is an admirable effort, but it’s only a stopgap, given the fast evolution of programming skills. Similarly, universal basic income and other “dividends” will buy some time for new innovations to percolate into the economy. But even proponents like Stockton, Calif., Mayor Michael Tubbs, and presidential candidate, Andrew Yang, see these as interim steps. As MIT Economist Daron Acemolgu said, ultimately, “we have to create new jobs.”

How? The MIT IDE is demonstrating that plausible, practical solutions are under way now. Inclusive innovation is taking place around the globe, often by grassroots entrepreneurs who want to share the prosperity of the digital economy. On the HBO program, IDE Director, Erik Brynjolfsson, spoke about needing a long-term process of innovation, reinvesting in the workforce, and entrepreneurship to include more workers in “the explosive growth of wealth and productivity. More powerful tools give us the power to shape the future,” he said.

Specifically, the Inclusive Innovation Challenge (IIC), MIT’s future of work prize, awards $1.6 million annually to entrepreneurs using technology to create economic opportunity for global workers.  IIC challenges entrepreneurs to re-invent the way tech innovation is harnessed for all. Twenty regional winners—representing Africa, Latin America, Europe, North America, and Asia—are celebrated at MIT where four Grand Prize Winners each win $250,000 and world-wide recognition. In the past three years, more than 3,000 applicants from 100 countries have participated. Their business ideas have ranged from agricultural climate apps for African farmers, to online training courses for U.S. health care workers, and coding boot camps in India and the Mideast. Training for urban youth in Detroit is rewarded alongside online credit unions in Europe and Latin America. It’s a model that can be scaled up and emulated.

This is a vision of work where workers are valued and technology is fueling innovation and shared prosperity — and it’s already taking shape. By spreading that vision and making it a wider reality, IIC hopes to remove some of the peril surrounding the future of work.


Watch HBO program clips here.