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3 ways to reexamine the future digital workforce

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recent report from the MIT Work of the Future Task Force finds that companies are still in the “early stages of adoption” when it comes to incorporating new technology into their workflows, while a 2018 Pew Research Center study showed that 65-90% of surveyed people think human-held jobs will be replaced by robots and computers.

When and how future workplaces will ultimately change remain unanswered, but Daniel Huttenlocher, inaugural dean of the MIT Stephen A. Schwarzman College of Computing, has some ideas.

He spoke Dec. 2 at the MIT Technology Review Future Compute event in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and discussed the future of machines and the digital workforce.

“I think it’s very hard to predict the future and particularly hard to predict the positive outcomes of the future,” said Huttenlocher, PhD ’88. “It’s a lot easier to see a technology and say ‘Gee, that looks like it’s going to pose a risk for a particular form of employment’ … than to envision some whole new type of work that is very hard to see because of the way that the technology is going to change.”

Machines will change jobs, not take them

Machines are probably not going to take your job. They might automate parts of it, but as Huttenlocher pointed out, commercial planes can fly themselves but that reality hasn’t eliminated pilots. 

“It’s not like computers come in and replace specific jobs,” he said. “What they tend to do is automate certain tasks, and if a particular job is heavy in a particular type of task and can’t kind of adapt to new ways of working, then that job becomes at risk.”

What’s important is to look at those tasks that are likely to be automated, how they map on to the workforce, and what are the likely new paths for technologies that will create jobs.

Re-skilling should take advantage of existing strengths

Changes in jobs mean workers will need to develop new skills, but Huttenlocher said he doesn’t think of it as reskilling so much as “re-architecting” and taking advantage of the strengths someone already has.

Daniel Huttenlocher, PhD '88, inaugural dean of the MIT Stephen A. Schwarzman College of Computing.

“What are the contributions that people make in their jobs that are very hard to automate?,” he asked. “How do we think about a combination of automation and human labor that is mutually beneficial?”

That also means the decision-makers in business, government, and academia need to recognize that some of the most creative content and ideas come from the factory floors and warehouses, rather than the people with the highest levels of education, he said.

Don’t fear the digital future, but be cautious

Whether it’s social media, artificial intelligence, or any kind of computing technology, because they affect human lives, their potential outcomes need to be thought through. Social media was supposed to have great societal benefits but now is producing a lot of negative consequences, Huttenlocher said. It’s the type of technology that would have benefited from thoughtful study at its beginning stages, not just when things got bad.

“The analogy I would use is that computing research today is much more like medical research than it is like research in other areas,” Huttenlocher said. “We think pretty carefully when we undertake medical research projects, about societal consequences. … I think that those issues need to be part of the research and part of commercialization all along the way.” 

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