Preparing the world for digital revolution

Second Machine Age conference highlights need for societal, educational shifts to keep pace with technological innovation

September 16, 2014

MIT Sloan Professor Erik Brynjolfsson and LinkedIn co-founder Allen Blue at the Second Machine Age conference

MIT Sloan Professor Erik Brynjolfsson and LinkedIn co-founder Allen Blue at the Second Machine Age conference

IBM’s Watson supercomputer is expected to outperform doctors in diagnosis. General Motors will offer a hands-free-driving car by 2016. In Japan, citizen scientists are mapping radiation fallout from the 2011 Fukushima disaster with Geiger meters mounted on their cars.

This rapid technological progress means the next breakthrough often happens before many can predict it, let alone respond to it.

And that could be a big problem. Because even as technology dazzles the mind and drives massive increases in wealth and productivity worldwide, the benefits are far from universally shared. Many of the world’s people suffer from stagnant employment and falling wages.

“The mismatch is going to get larger and larger,” said MIT Sloan professor Erik Brynjolfsson. “We need to reinvent our society to keep up with this accelerating technology. We need to reinvent our organizations. We need to reinvent our skills.”

Brynjolfsson and his frequent collaborator MIT Sloan research scientist Andrew McAfee have been sounding this alarm since the 2011 publication of their e-book Race Against the Machine: How the Digital Revolution is Accelerating Innovation, Driving Productivity, and Irreversibly Transforming Employment and the Economy . The question now is: how does society need to change to keep pace with technology?

At the Second Machine Age conference—held Sept. 10-11 at the MIT Media Lab and named for Brynjolfsson and McAfee’s 2013 book—academics and business leaders grappled with that question, trying to compose an image of the future of work, education, and society that fits with their best educated guesses of the future of technology.

The vibe was optimistic. Allen Blue, the co-founder of LinkedIn, explained how the company’s massive database of users, employers, and schools can track needs for skills by city and connect workers with jobs. MIT Media Lab assistant professor Cesar Hidalgo demonstrated how applications like The Observatory of Economic Complexity can measure and predict international trade practices to target regions and develop growth. And Gill Pratt, a manager at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, covered significant advancements in robotics.

“We’re getting a lot better at these things, and none of this is a small deal,” McAfee said. “I feel like we’re in an age of getting smarter about the state of the world that we haven’t seen since the combination of the Enlightenment and the scientific revolution.”

Much of the discussion focused on how to prepare society to best navigate and take advantage of the digital and technological revolution that is underway.

Education was a constant theme. Joi Ito, the director of the MIT Media Lab, argued for a shift to “creative learning” incorporating “projects, peers, passion, and play.” He demonstrated how faculty and students at the Media Lab are leaders in the so-called maker culture that uses new tools of innovation like 3D printing to develop new products. At the Media Lab, Ito said, the faculty credo is not “publish or perish,” but “deploy or die.”

Bill Aulet, the managing director of the Martin Trust Center for MIT Entrepreneurship, pushed for changes in how people are taught to start businesses, saying that entrepreneurship education in the United States is dismal at best today. He dismissed most entrepreneurship educators as long on platitudes and short on actionable guidance. Meanwhile, the demand for entrepreneurship education is stronger than ever before, Aulet said.

“This enormous gap between demand and supply has been filled by storytelling,” he said. “Why is that? Because it’s not easy to teach entrepreneurship.”

Aulet advocated what he calls “disciplined entrepreneurship,” a method he described in his 2013 book of the same name. The disciplined approach, Aulet said, focuses on the skills, knowledge, and processes needed to develop and launch a new product or service, rather than on anecdotes and motivational speeches.

The dearth of practical entrepreneurship education is worrying, Aulet said, because entrepreneurs will be the job creators of the new machine age, creating new industries using the affordable, easy-to-access tools that are fast becoming available. He made a distinction between small, local ventures such as restaurants and retailers and “innovation-driven enterprises” that can become global companies on the strength of their cutting-edge new technology or approach. Encouraging the latter, he said, will help to solve the country’s looming employment crisis.

“Your kids are going to be entrepreneurs,” Aulet said. “That’s where the jobs are going to be. Entrepreneurship is not a fad. It is not going away.”

Twin initiatives

MIT last year announced the MIT Innovation Initiative to answer just that type of challenge. Associate Dean Fiona Murray, co-director of the initiative, predicted a continuing rise of innovation-driven enterprises, the result of new ideas accompanied by new tools to put them into action, such as crowdfunding networks to raise capital and low-cost, on-demand business services like legal service company LegalZoom.

The MIT Innovation Initiative, Murray said, will help define and develop the capabilities needed to lead the innovation economy. She outlined three “critical capabilities:” an ability to recognize and respond to global challenges; an ability to reliably scale innovations; and an ability to design organizations and policies that fit the new innovation economy.

That means a shift in the way students are taught, with increasing emphasis on problem solving and learning in the field, a stronger connection to corporate partners, and a physical campus that encourages and fosters innovative activity, Murray said.

Separate but complementary to the MIT Innovation Initiative is the Initiative on the Digital Economy, an MIT Sloan-based effort to develop research and guidance on how digital technologies will affect businesses, the economy, and society. For all of the excitement about disruptive technologies and companies, McAfee, the co-director of the initiative, said it is unlikely that all major corporations will simply collapse in the face of upstarts. Instead, he advocated that companies rethink their approaches to management, leadership, and strategy. Specifically, he advocated the triumph of facts, statistics, and research—what he called “geek pursuits.”

“Getting business to get a little bit geekier overall is a really noble fight, I think,” McAfee said.