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Peter Dizikes

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Why We Shouldn’t Fear the Future of Work

Automation and artificial intelligence don’t just replace jobs; they also create them

Published: Wednesday, December 9, 2020 - 12:03

The American workforce is at a crossroads. Digitization and automation have replaced millions of middle-class jobs, while wages have stagnated for many who remain employed. A lot of labor has become insecure, low-income freelance work.

Yet there is reason for optimism on behalf of workers, as scholars and business leaders outlined recently in an MIT conference. Automation and artificial intelligence do not just replace jobs; they also create them. And many labor, education, and safety-net policies could help workers greatly as well.

That was the outlook of many participants at the conference, “AI and the Work of the Future Congress,” marking the release of the final report of MIT’s Task Force on the Work of the Future. The report concludes that there is no technology-driven jobs wipeout on the horizon, but new policies are needed to match the steady march of innovation; technology has mostly helped white-collar workers but not the rest of the workforce in the United States.

“We’re not going to run out of work,” said Elisabeth Beck Reynolds, executive director of the task force, and executive director of the MIT Industrial Performance Center.

She added: “Clearly, the distributional effects of technological change are uneven. We’ve seen the reduction of middle-skill jobs [due] to automation, [along with] jobs in manufacturing, administration, in clerical work, while we’ve seen an increase in jobs for those with higher education and higher skill sets.... Our challenge is to try to train [workers] and make sure we have workers in good positions for those jobs.”

Indeed, the notion of social responsibility was a leading motif of the conference, which drew an audience of about 1,500 online viewers.

“I believe that those of us who are technologists, and who educate tomorrow’s technologists, have a special role to play,” said MIT President L. Rafael Reif, in his introductory remarks at the conference. “It means that, while we are teaching students, in every field, to be fluent in the use of AI strategies and tools, we must be sure that we equip tomorrow’s technologists with equal fluency in the cultural values and ethical principles that should ground and govern how those tools are designed and how they’re used.”

The daylong event was organized by MIT’s Task Force on the Work of the Future, along with the Initiative on the Digital Economy and the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory.

Conditions on the ground

The report notes that during the last four decades, innovation has driven increases in productivity, but earnings have not followed in step. Since 1978, overall U.S. productivity has risen by 66 percent; yet over the same time, compensation for production and nonsupervisory workers has risen only by 10 percent.

“Work has become a lot more fragile,” said James Manyika, a senior partner at the consulting firm McKinsey and Company, chair of the McKinsey Global Institute, and a member of McKinsey's board of directors. “This has affected both middle-wage and lower-wage workers.”

To be sure, information technology in particular has helped people in engineering, design, medicine, marketing, and many other white-collar fields; and while middle-income jobs have become more scarce, service-sector jobs have expanded but tend to be lower-income.

“Certainly the United States is a good place for high-wage workers to be, but not for lower-wage [workers] and those in the middle,” said Susan Houseman, vice president and director of research at the W.E. Upjohn Institute for Employment Research. “We should be concerned about the growth of nontraditional work arrangements.”

Moreover, “The U.S. doesn’t seem to be getting a very positive return on its inequality,” said David Autor, the Ford Professor of Economics at MIT, associate head of MIT’s Department of Economics, and a co-chair of the task force. “That is, we have a lot of inequality, but we do not have faster growth.”

In general, most workers are “not seeming to share in the prosperity that improved technology has got us,” said Robert M. Solow, Institute Professor Emeritus and 1987 Nobel laureate in economics, in recorded remarks shown during the conference.

That said, Solow observed, “There’s room for a lot of ingenuity here, because since the nature of employment has changed, as we become a service economy rather than a goods-producing economy, there’s room for innovation in how to organize union work.... More active enforcement of antitrust laws, to try to increase the degree of competition in the production of goods and services, would also have the effect of improving the prospects for wages and salaries.”

He added: “The main factor in the disturbance in the distribution of incomes is probably not technological change.”

What are the next steps?

But if there is room for policy interventions to ease the social jolts resulting from technology, which ones make the most sense? In general terms, some conference participants advocated for an openness to market-driven technological change, paired with a substantial safety net to help people handle those disruptive waves of innovation.

“The real fundamental shift is, we have to think of service jobs the way 100 years ago we thought about manufacturing jobs,” said Fareed Zakaria, author and host of the CNN show, Fareed Zakaria GPS. “In other words, we have to start putting in place... protections and benefits.” He added, “Ultimately, that is the only way you are going to really address this problem. We are not going to bring back tens of millions of manufacturing jobs to the United States. We are going to take these service jobs and make them better jobs. And companies can do that.”

One conference panel focused on the support of education, particularly public universities and community colleges, where traditionally overlooked pools of workplace talent reside.

“One of the most important skills or approaches that we need to talk about is how to make sure that people know how to think, how to learn, how to adapt,” said Freeman Hrabowski, president of the University of Maryland at Baltimore County. That said, he noted, people receiving a broad college education can also receive specialist certificates and credentials in particular technical areas and add layers to their skills that are more closely linked to evolving job opportunities. “Both are very important,” he noted.

Juan Salgado, chancellor of the City Colleges of Chicago, a group of community colleges, pointed out that there are 11.8 million community college students in America—many of whom already hold jobs and have workplace skills in addition to the academic skills they are acquiring.

“It’s about the assets that are in our institutions, our students, and the fact that we’re not paying enough attention to them,” said Salgado.

“We know what works,” said Paul Osterman, a professor of human resources and management at the MIT Sloan School of Management, pointing out that many training programs, internships, and other work-directed educational programs have been rigorously assessed and proven to be effective. “It’s taking what we know works and making it work at scale.”

Saru Jayaraman, president of the advocacy group One Fair Wage and director of the Food Labor Research Center at the University of California at Berkeley, noted that simply raising the minimum wage, especially for food service workers, would have multiple benefits that only start with the increased earnings for roughly 10 percent of the workforce.

“Increased wages reduce turnover in an industry that has some of the highest turnover rates in any industry in the United States,” said Jayaraman, adding that better wages have “increased employee morale, [and] increased employee productivity and consumer service.”

Karen Mills, a senior fellow at the Harvard Business School and a former administrator of the Small Business Administration, suggested that good policies are especially important for small businesses, which may not be able to capitalize on technology as much as bigger firms.

“In the jobs of the future, not all robots are going to be serving you coffee,” said Mills. “There’s still going to be Main Street.” She emphasized the continued need for supportive policies for small businesses, including access to healthcare for employees and access to capital for firm founders, which would also help small businesses owned by women and people of color.

Rep. Lisa Blunt Rochester of Delaware, who will start her third term as a congresswoman in January 2021, helped found the Congressional Future of Work Caucus, and suggested there is more bipartisan support for federal action than observers may suspect.

“We launched the caucus right before Covid-19 struck,” she said. “We literally had standing room only. Democrats, Republicans, we had the council on Black mayors, we had the unions, AFL-CIO, just this diversity, academics—I held up your [interim] report—there was this common agreement that we need to have the conversation.”

‘Something we shape and create’

The conference also included extended discussion about the state of technology itself, especially artificial intelligence, examining its paths of progress and forms of deployment.

“Technology is not something that happens to us,” said David Mindell, task force co-chair, professor of aeronautics and astronautics, and the Dibner Professor of the History of Engineering and Manufacturing at MIT. “It’s something we shape and create.”

“You can’t say, ‘AI did it,’” said Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella, in a taped conversation with Autor. “We, as creators of AI, first and foremost have a set of design principles.... We have to go from ethics to actual engineering and design and [a] process that allows us to be more accountable.”

A number of conference participants suggested that we should be careful to construct policies that don’t rein in technological advances but can ameliorate their effects.

“I don’t think we should constrain technological progress, because it is a competitive advantage of nations, and we have to let innovation thrive,” said Indra Nooyi, the former chairman and CEO of Pepsico. “We have to let technology proceed. At best, what we can do is anticipate the negative consequences of technology... and put in some checks and balances.”

As a few conference panelists noted throughout the event, the overlapping issues of work, technology, and inequality have become even more complicated and relevant during the Covid-19 pandemic, with roughly one-third of the workforce able to work more securely from home, while many service workers and others must perform their jobs in person.

Surveying the employment landscape of 2020, Nooyi noted, “In many ways Covid has exacerbated all the societal divides.” Indeed, Reynolds said, “We believe this work is more important, not less important, in the time of Covid.”

Overall, the task force members noted, making the work of the future better is a task that starts today.

“I really come away from this concerned about the direction [of work], but optimistic about our ability to change it,” Autor said.

First published Nov. 20, 2020, on MIT News.

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About The Author

Peter Dizikes’s picture

Peter Dizikes

Peter Dizikes writes for MIT News and MIT Technology Review at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Dizikes writing covers social sciences, humanities, and business, with many stories involving the history of science and science policy. Dizikes has reported and written articles for The New York Times, The Boston Globe, The Washington Post, Salon, Slate, Seed, Nature online, and other publications. He was an editor/writer for ABCNews.com and for Time. He frequently wrote features on education and also produced articles for university publications. Special projects included writing an educator’s guide to evolution, accompanying NOVA’s acclaimed documentary, Judgment Day.