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What Microsoft’s Satya Nadella thinks about work of the future

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Some people are fearful the coming revolution in AI and robotics will take people’s jobs. Satya Nadella sees a way forward. Speaking at the Nov. 18 MIT AI and Work of the Future Congress, the Microsoft CEO envisioned a near future where jobs are “enriched by productivity.”

“Computing is getting embedded in the real world, in a manufacturing plant, in a retail setting, in a hospital, in a farm,” Nadella said. “Now we’re transcending beyond knowledge work to help people who are on the construction site, in care management in hospitals, on manufacturing shop floors, to all participate in being able to do digitized work. And obviously, hopefully the wages go up.”

In a wide-ranging discussion with MIT economist David Autor, Nadella said he sees potential for what he calls “small AI,” how technology can be democratized to empower workers, and how he looks at remote work now and after the pandemic.

The conversation was framed by a final report issued by the MIT Task Force on the Work of the Future, which found that automation is unlikely to lead to a crisis in which most workers are replaced by robots. Still, there is a need to create more shared prosperity in the U.S. and improve the quality of jobs for low- and middle-income workers.

Here’s what the leader of Microsoft is thinking about the future of work, and the role his company will play. 

Technology can democratize expertise and empower workers

Technology can replace workers and take jobs away, but it also creates new opportunities: According to the Work of the Future report, 63% of jobs performed in 2018 did not exist in 1940.

“We didn’t have solar engineers, we didn’t have computer engineers, we didn’t have pediatric oncologists, we didn’t have different types of entertainment until we had the technology that not only made it feasible, but created the demand for expertise,” Autor said. Concern lies in whether newer jobs are only available to those with specialized technology skills.

Nadella said that’s not necessarily the case. “STEM is going to be important, but it’s not like we need everybody to have a masters in computer science to be employed, because that would be a massive failure of our labor market policies,” he said. “The goal here is to in fact go the other way, which is — can I take the expertise and democratize it to help productivity gains of a frontline worker? That’s the problem to solve.”

Nadella cited the instance of someone newly employed at a car factory in Ohio who is able to learn their job holographically from a remote engineer, thanks to technologies like augmented and virtual reality.

 “The expert can be remote but can more seamlessly transfer their knowledge to the person on the frontline, and the result is more capability on the frontline.” This kind of remote training is empowering, democratizes expertise, and is well-suited to the pandemic era, Nadella said.

Computing power will boost AI, but responsible technology is a challenge

Nadella said he is excited about changes in what he calls the underlying “computing fabric” that enables artificial intelligence — cloud and edge computing technology that provide the capacity, speed, and agility needed for things like augmented reality, automatic translation, and training AI models.

That includes deciding where and how to use artificial intelligence and other technology. Nadella said he sees promise in what he called “real world small AI.” For example, technologies that allow front line workers in manufacturing, retail, medicine, and other fields to take their expertise and turn it into automation, using AI capabilities like speech or image recognition. “That’s all gaining productivity,” he said. “That means those jobs, now, should have better wage support … something like that I think we should always choose when it's available.”

While he doesn’t believe that “artificial general intelligence” — machines that can learn anything humans can — is on the way soon, Nadella said he has confidence “we will have some real breakthroughs at an accelerated pace.”

The core challenge, he said, is taking responsibility for the technology. “We, as creators of AI, will first and foremost have to have a set of design principles,” he said, from an ethics foundation to designing processes that allow human accountability and ensure fair and non-biased models.

Access to technology and skilling employees are keys to bridging inequality

As the Work of the Future report found, recent advances in technology have largely benefitted workers at the top income levels, while workers who earn less are largely missing out. Nadella said he thinks of two main ways to bridge this gap.

  1. Ensuring access to technology. While everyone likes to talk about technological breakthroughs, there should also be discussion about making sure all people have access to, and can benefit from, these advances, Nadella said — like ensuring people in rural areas have broadband access, or people have access to devices.
  2. Skilling and the availability of education — which leads to credentials and then employment — is also important. Nadella said he looks at LinkedIn’s Economic Graph for insights about the workforce, and as a real-time feedback loop between jobs of the future and skills required. More companies should incorporate training into daily workflows, Nadella said, so that instead of sending employees elsewhere to get training, they can get training and certifications as part of their jobs. “I think that combination of access, skilling, and finding jobs is where we will have to do our very best work, and Microsoft’s super focused on that,” he said.

Nadella said he also agreed with the task force report’s recommendation for research and development tax credits.

“We should have tax credits for corporations for really investing in training,” he said. “That was one of the things that I was pretty shocked by, is the actual investment made by corporations in training their own employees so that they could keep up with the times has been going down. So, the question is, how do we create the right incentive mechanism for that?”

3 ways to better remote work

While more remote work and education has always been expected as technology improves, the COVID-19 crisis has hastened the transition. Nadella said he expects these structural changes to last as people question whether physical presence is necessary. Microsoft is collecting data and learning more about three specific areas:

Collaboration, especially between frontline workers and so-called knowledge workers — like the factory worker in Ohio being trained with virtual or augmented reality. “Once you've established the connection, that means you can transcend space,” he said. “Even if the person is in Seattle and somebody else is in a rural area, you can collaborate.”

Learning. Onboarding new employees and building social and knowledge capital is difficult with remote work, Nadella said. Leaders should go beyond training to deliver connections to employees, using digital tools to replace chance meetings in the office, for example. 

Well-being. Studies show virtual meeting fatigue is real, Nadella said, and productivity is only possible if employees have a sense of well-being. “Time in an attention economy is the only scarce commodity,” he said. “How do we take those breaks for transitions? How do we recharge? … Sometimes working from home feels like sleeping at work. How to avoid that?”

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Autor highlighted Nadella’s last point. “People are saying, ‘data is the new oil,’ but I fully agree with you that attention is the new oil,” he said. “Data is plentiful. Attention is scarce, and we'll never get more of it. Thinking about how we focus that correctly, I think, is one of our most significant opportunities.”

Sustainable growth

The next 10 years will see more computing power, which translates into growth, but the question is what constraints society decides to impose on this power, Nadella said, adding that the world needs economic growth that’s aligned with the planet’s stability.

Per capita, more compute capability [will be] available,” he said. “What we need to be putting our best thought into is how we use the ubiquity of computing, the availability of all compute to improve — I'll call it the overall cogs of the society and the overall effects on the society.”

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