Transformative automation is coming. The impact is up to us
In a recent Pew study, 72 percent of Americans report feeling either worried or very worried about “a future where robots and computers can do many human jobs.” Seventy-six percent believe that economic inequality will grow worse in such a future.
As president of an institute with “technology” in its name and national service in its mission, I take these concerns seriously. Every past technology wave ultimately produced more jobs than it destroyed and delivered important gains, from higher living standards and life expectancy to productivity and economic growth. Yet many fear that this time the change may be so fast and so vast, and its impact so uneven and disruptive, that it may threaten not only individual livelihoods, but the stability of society itself.
Fortunately, this outcome is not inevitable — and the future is in our hands. Indeed, deliberate, coordinated action is what smoothed such transitions in the past. If we want the advance of technology to benefit everyone, however, we need to take action right away: We must proactively and thoughtfully reinvent the future of work.
Simply understanding the problem is a challenge; interestingly, experts still disagree on exactly which groups and regions are losing jobs primarily to automation, how quickly such impact will spread, and what interventions can help. To build sound, long-term policy on something this important, we cannot rely on anecdotes. Government, foundation, and corporate leaders need to invest in better data now.
In the meantime, we must act on what we do know and make progress wherever we can. For instance, CEOs across many sectors face a painful quandary: They have to lay off people whose jobs have disappeared, while they have job openings they can’t fill because they can’t find people with the right training and skills. This mismatch is bad for everyone: Lives are derailed, families and communities damaged, business opportunities lost.
Technology itself offers one path to a solution: In fields from robotics and cybersecurity to supply chain management, many universities, including MIT, are pioneering “MicroMasters” and other online credentialing programs to provide top-quality, industry-relevant skills, in a form recognized by leading employers, at a fraction of the price of traditional higher education. For people with industry expertise who need to become proficient in digital or problem-solving skills, including teachers seeking to prepare their students for the future, an answer could be “continuous uptraining,” a system that would allow every employee to devote significant time — every week, every month, or every year — to acquiring fresh skills. If educational institutions, employers, and employees imagine and refine a solution together, continuous uptraining could become a crucial tool to help individuals adapt to relentless change.
Reinventing the future of work needs to be a whole-society effort — and finding long-term solutions will require ideas and initiative from every quarter. Could educators make sure that every graduate is computationally literate? Could institutions like MIT do better at guiding students to balance efficiency with other human values in choosing the problems they work on and how they design solutions? Could workers help develop automating technologies, to create complementary machines that make humans more effective and efficient instead of obsolete? Could corporations use some profits achieved through automation to invest in developing those whose jobs automation has erased? Could unions help shape more relevant and accessible apprenticeship and uptraining programs? Could government develop educational incentives that would motivate firms to locate in hard-hit regions? I believe the answer to all those questions can and should be yes — and I’m certain we need many more and better ideas, too.
If options like these sound too big or too expensive, let’s remember that ideas like universal public education, the GI Bill, and the post-Sputnik focus on science education met exactly the same resistance. However, it was such broad, far-sighted investments in human development — by the nation, for the nation — that allowed the country to mitigate the immense pain caused by previous technological and societal earthquakes.
Automation will transform our work, our lives, our society. Whether the outcome is inclusive or exclusive, fair or laissez-faire, is up to us. Getting this right is among the most important and inspiring challenges of our time — and it should be a priority for everyone who hopes to enjoy the benefits of a society that’s healthy and stable, because it offers opportunity for all.
In this work, those of us leading and benefiting from the technology revolution must help lead the way. This is not someone else’s problem; it is a call to action. Technologies embody the values of those who make them. It is up to those of us advancing new technologies to help make certain that they do not wind up damaging the society we intend them to serve.
At MIT, we are deeply engaged in defining the current problem and forecasting challenges ahead. And we are urgently seeking allies who want to join in developing creative, collaborative solutions — and in building a future in which technology works for everyone.
L. Rafael Reif is president of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.