Decades of technological change have polarized the earnings of the American workforce, helping highly educated white-collar workers thrive, while hollowing out the middle class. Yet present-day advances like robots and artificial intelligence do not spell doom for middle-tier or lower-wage workers, since innovations create jobs as well. With better policies in place, more people could enjoy good careers even as new technology transforms workplaces.
That’s the conclusion of the final report from MIT’s Task Force on the Work of the Future, which summarizes over two years of research on technology and jobs. The report, “The Work of the Future: Building Better Jobs in an Age of Intelligent Machines,” was released today, and the task force is hosting an online conference on Wednesday, the “AI & the Future of Work Congress.”
At the core of the task force’s findings: A robot-driven jobs apocalypse is not on the immediate horizon. As technology takes jobs away, it provides new opportunities; about 63 percent of jobs performed in 2018 did not exist in 1940. Rather than a robot revolution in the workplace, we are witnessing a gradual tech evolution. At issue is how to improve the quality of jobs, particularly for middle- and lower-wage workers, and ensure there is greater shared prosperity than the U.S. has seen in recent decades.
“The sky is not falling, but it is slowly lowering,” says 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. “We need to respond. The world is gradually changing in very important ways, and if we just keep going in the direction we’re going, it is going to produce bad outcomes.”
That starts with a realistic understanding of technological change, say the task force leaders.
The task force aimed “to move past the hype about what [technologies] might be here, and now we’re looking at what can we feasibly do to move things forward for workers,” says Elisabeth Beck Reynolds, executive director of the task force as well as executive director of the MIT Industrial Performance Center. “We looked across a range of industries and examined the numerous factors — social, cognitive, organizational, economic — that shape how firms adopt technology.”
“We want to inject into the public discourse a more nuanced way of talking about technology and work,” adds 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 not that the robots are coming tomorrow and there’s nothing we can do about it. Technology is an aggregate of human choices.”
The report also addresses why Americans may be concerned about work and the future. It states: “Where innovatio
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