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MIT report says robots aren’t going to take all our jobs, but people have a right to be worried

It’s enough to make you worried. An automated production line at the BMW Mini car production plant in Oxford, west of LondonGeoff Caddick/AFP/Getty Images/AFP/Getty Images

The robots are going to take all our jobs.

A thought-provoking new report from a major MIT task force says that may be too grim a view, but people have valid concerns about technology’s future impact on jobs, after decades in which rising productivity has failed to produce broadly shared prosperity.

The report goes on to argue that technology itself is not to blame — and it concludes by offering a number of pro-worker policy recommendations aimed at helping the country do better as change continues in the future.

“The world now stands on the cusp of a technological revolution in artificial intelligence and robotics that may prove as transformative for economic growth and human potential as were electrification, mass production, and electronic telecommunications in their eras, ” The Task Force on the Work of the Future, which included more than 20 faculty drawn from 12 departments, said in its draft report.

“New and emerging technologies will raise aggregate economic output and boost the wealth of nations,” the report said. “Will these developments enable people to attain higher living standards, better working conditions, greater economic security, and improved health and longevity? The answers to these questions are not predetermined. They depend upon the institutions, investments, and policies that we deploy to harness the opportunities and confront the challenges posed by this new era.”


“We can and should do better,” the report urged.

MIT President L. Rafael Reif called for the creation of the task force in 2017. “At MIT, we are inspired by the idea that technology can be a force for good. But if as a nation we want to make sure that today’s new technologies evolve in ways that help build a healthier, more equitable society, we need to move quickly to develop and implement strong, enlightened policy responses,” he said Tuesday in a statement.


The recommendations in the report include:

■Investing and innovating to provide workers with new skills.

■Changing the US tax code to incentivize investment in labor and skills, not just capital.

■Giving workers weight as stakeholders in the companies where they work.

■Changing labor laws to increase opportunities for “cooperative bargaining” between workers and employers.

■ Improving organizational and managerial practices to boost worker productivity.

■Renewing investments in areas such as robotics, artificial intelligence, and machine learning to maintain long-term prosperity, and economic and national security.

■ Nudging innovation in “directions that will benefit the nation: among them complementing workers, boosting productivity, and providing a foundation for shared prosperity.”

“There is a lot of alarmist rhetoric about how the robots are coming,” Elisabeth Beck Reynolds, executive director of the task force as well as executive director of the MIT Industrial Performance Center, said in the university statement. “MIT’s job is to cut through some of this hype and bring some perspective to this discussion.”

One cow being milked by a robotic milking machine while another one waits its turn at a dairy farm in MassachusettsEvan McGinn for The Boston Globe

Reynolds called the task force’s interest in new policy directions “classically American in its willingness to consider innovation and experimentation.”

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, said in the statement that society needs to make “good choices” going forward.

“We think people are pessimistic because they’re on to something,” he said. “Although there’s no shortage of jobs, the gains have been so unequally distributed that most people have not benefited much. If the next four decades of automation are going to look like the last four decades, people have reason to worry.”


The 58-page report said it was aiming not to provide definitive answers but preliminary insights to enable decisionmakers to ask the right questions. The task force also has eight graduate students and a 22-person advisory board drawn from the ranks of industry leaders, former government officials and academia. The task force plans to do deeper analyses before delivering a final report.

The task force is going to detail its findings in a briefing at the National Press Club in Washington, DC, on Tuesday morning.

A worker follows behind a robot at Quiet Logistics in Devens, where companies get their orders packed and shipped by a combination of robots and peopleSuzanne Kreiter/Globe staff