MIT Report on the Future of Work

In a recent Article posted on the Singularity Hub, the author describes the first report of the MIT Task Force on the Work of the Future. This group of MIT academics was set up by MIT President Rafael Reif in early 2018 to investigate how emerging technologies will impact employment and devise strategies to steer developments in a positive direction. The primary finding from this report is that  it’s the quality of the jobs we should worry about – not the quantity.

Much of this is described in my recent post on The Technology Trap. Our current scenario bears a striking resemblance to the period in the early days of the First Industrial Revolution: low-skilled jobs have grown at the expense of the middle-skilled ones, driving growing income inequality. MIT - The Future of WorkIn the historical scenario, children replaced skilled workers, as simplicity via mechanization enabled children to operate the machines. Today, as in the past 30 years, automation plays the role once reserved for children. While unemployment is historically low, recent decades have seen a polarization of the workforce as the number of both high and low-skilled jobs have grown at the expense of the middle-skilled ones, driving growing income inequality and depriving the non-college-educated of viable careers.

This phenomenon is explored at length in a recent book titled Not Working: Where have all the good jobs Gone? Today, workers can either pursue high-skilled jobs that require deep knowledge and creativity, or settle for low-paid jobs that rely on skills that are still beyond machines like manual dexterity and communication.  As the article states, these skills are generic to most humans and therefore not valued by employers. Wages as we have seen suffer as a result. The authors note that up until the 1980s, increasing productivity resulted in wage growth across the economic spectrum, but since then average wage growth has failed to keep pace and gains have dramatically skewed towards the top earners (a deeper look into the reasons why can be found in the book mentioned above).

The growth of emerging technologies like AI and robotics is only likely to exacerbate the problem. The report correctly concludes that the institutions that form the foundation for society must be addressed to deal with this emerging future. However, Unlearning is our biggest challenge and obstacle. As Alvin Tofler rightfully said: The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those that can’t read or write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.

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