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Positive Futures (continued)

A new initiative, a grand challenge.
And that’s where the Initiative for the Digital Economy comes in. A major effort from MIT Sloan, the initiative addresses the impact of technology on businesses, the economy, and society. The way Brynjolfsson sees it, the engineers and scientists across campus have brought us to this brave new world. It’s time for the business and management side of MIT to make it work for society.

“We need to invent the economics and the social system that can keep up with what they’re doing on the technology side,” he says. “We need to come up with a system that will find jobs for the people whose tasks can now be done by computers or, better yet, leverage them into doing something that could never have been done before.”

So here are some of the MIT players who might be involved: MIT Sloan’s top-rated Information Technology group along with its leading Finance, Organization Studies, and Technological Innovation, Entrepreneurship, and Strategic Management groups; the vaunted and interdisciplinary MIT Media Lab; the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, known as CSAIL and home to some of the world’s top artificial intelligence (AI) researchers; Brynjolfsson and McAfee’s MIT Center for Digital Business; and MIT’s Economics department, where the faculty and alumni roster is dotted with the names of Nobel Laureates. And those are just the obvious participants, and only the ones at MIT.

“What we want to do with this initiative is bring those people together to get that dialogue going and have it be very explicit, where the AI researchers tell the economists what’s doable,” Brynjolfsson says, “and the economists talk to the roboticists about the implications of their technologies, and we work together with a discussion that could not happen any other place in the world.”

And then there is the possibility for input from industry leaders, among whom interest in the new digital economy is high. A recent MIT Sloan alumni event hosted by Brynjolfsson and McAfee in San Francisco included guest speakers like O’Reilly Media founder Tim O’Reilly, TIBCO founder Vivek Ranadivé, and Rethink Robotics founder Rodney Brooks.

It all adds up to a lot of smart people capable of reshaping the way economies and industries function, along the way ensuring that work, employment, and livable wages remain a reality of American life. “Ultimately, all these technologies aren’t going to be valuable unless they help people,” Brynjolfsson says. “It’s one thing to have a machine that does wondrous things—but unless it creates economic value and helps society, what’s the point?”