Economic, Social Impact of New Tech Takes Center Stage

Rethinking education and training is becoming more critical to the future of work

By Paula Klein

Artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) algorithms are seeping into the workplace slowly but surely. They are automating repetitive tasks on Nissan’s factory floors, analyzing retail preferences at global e-tailers, and aiding hiring decisions around the world. Chat bots at Liberty Mutual’s claims department handle 150,000 calls per month, dramatically changing the nature of work and the face of the workforce. And these are still early-stage developments, according to speakers from these firms at MIT’s AI and Work of the Future Congress held November 21 in Cambridge, MA. Bigger breakthroughs are imminent.

Despite the rapid-fire pace of advancements, technology was less of a focus at this year’s Congress than the associated economic and social disruptions now under way.

Most pressing are the immense business challenges coming to light: How to integrate new technologies into the current workforce and workplace, and how to transform organizations to accommodate the next wave of work.

What will jobs look like and who will be skilled to perform them in the next decade? What labor policies are needed to protect and train a fragmented, diverse workforce? How do we level the playing field? These were among the tough questions setting the tone for the day.

A Perilous Trajectory

Elisabeth Reynolds, Executive Director, MIT Task Force on the Work of the Future, framed the issues based on a report the task force recently released. She said the biggest concern is the decline of earnings growth and productivity since 1980. Wages are stagnant for most workers, and the situation is worse when considering race, geography, and demographics. “We stay on this trajectory at our own peril,” in terms of inequality and social costs, she said.

MIT’s Elisabeth Reynolds frames the event’s themes. PHOTOS: Andrew Kubica

For instance, the workforce is aging, and fertility and immigration rates are down in the U.S. Automation may fill in for some worker gaps, but we also need ways to find new workers and to create meaningful jobs and job paths at all skill levels.

Summing up the conference, MIT Initiative on the Digital Economy co-director, Andrew McAfee, noted a shift from previous discussions about the future of work when “we had to make the case of technological change resulting from AI. Today, nobody had to make case. Everyone is now examining what to do about it.

The conversation has moved to “this is critical. Let’s figure out what to do.”

Technology was the backdrop for many of the economic, social, and business concerns raised during the day-long event, but most of the focus was on the education, training, inclusion, and partnerships. MIT leaders Daniela Rus, Director, MIT Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab (CSAIL), and Erik Brynjolfsson, Director, MIT Initiative on the Digital Economy (IDE), acknowledged the “amazing advances and also the challenges” of the sea change taking place. People are worried about losing jobs to machines with good reason, Brynjolfsson said, requiring us “to embrace technology and speed up our adaptation, because powerful tools” are emerging.

Educational Solutions

Education was probably the most often cited solution to all types of issues. But what specific type of education — from K-12 digital literacy to retraining and life-learning — and how to administer and pay for it, proved thornier.

Some speakers proposed a wider role for public education, especially community colleges that are increasingly seen as the best place to train and re-train students for new vocations and skills. Rus noted that U.S. community colleges serve more than six million students and are already matching students with skills and with employers such as Google and Amazon.

But those in the field, including Annette Parker, President, South Central College, in Minnesota, say junior colleges remain woefully underfunded. She said that while community colleges can train a wide range of people at all stages of life as well as those who want to transfer to four-year colleges, they also serve at-risk populations, and those with food and clothing insecurities. “We address diverse needs,” she said, “and we put students on a career path early on,” but there’s a constant need for additional funds and resources.

Annette Parker (center), and Suzi LeVine (far right), listen to IBM’s Guillermo Miranda.

To Suzi LeVine, Commissioner, Washington State Employment Security Department, apprenticeships are a key to creating a pipeline of entry-level workers who learn job-appropriate skills. Apprenticeships for students right out of high school can help fill the estimated 740,000 entry-level jobs anticipated in her state in the next five years as well as millions more around the country, LeVine believes. In particular, she wants to follow the Swiss model where businesses invest in training future talent. “Our focus is on transition; how can we help people before they get to a crisis point? The Swiss apprentice model is flexible, she said, “it doesn’t define you for life, it prepares you for life.”

Several speakers emphasized that the public sector can’t go it alone; business partnerships are critical. But partnership models vary greatly, too — from internally developed corporate programs, to shared experiences, or training companies such as Catalyte. It uses AI to identify and train untapped technology talent.

At IBM, an internal need for skills as well as skill training for clients, led it to develop a training program for students called P-TECH. According to Guillermo Miranda, Global Head, Corporate Social Responsibility, IBM, “We know how to use technology to span the digital divide and to create jobs all over the world.”

What’s more, many speakers said that traditional educational backgrounds won‘t be as critical for the jobs of the future, especially in specialized categories. Jobcase, like IBM, is focusing more on skills than degrees, said CEO Fred Goff. Employers increasingly will favor flexibility, collaborative skills and life experiences, when matching workers to a job. “The more diverse their background, the better they will do.”

Other highlights and takeaways from the conference included the following:

  • Many speakers lauded the idea of federal tax credits for human capital development and investments, not only for capital spending.
  • MIT’s Daron Acemoglu spoke about the need for social safety nets, “not gimmicks,” such as minimum wage laws and tax credits to correct economic inequalities.
  • Elisabeth Reynolds said that workers need a strong voice and better representation to reinvigorate technology leadership and to foster innovation.
  • digitalundivided CEO, Kathryn Finney, noted that black woman are still only making small gains when it comes to getting venture capital backing in the U.S., especially the first round of funding. This is one reason why diversity is still the exception and not the norm when it comes to corporate leadership.
  • Andrew McAfee said we are not facing “a job quantity problem, but a job quality problem.” The biggest employment needs exist in lower-end jobs where skills, training and retraining are most lacking.
  • MIT Associate Professor, Julie Shah, who also leads the Interactive Robotics Group, noted that we are still a long way from machines understanding human thinking and from humans totally understanding machines.

Read more about the conference panels here, and watch session videos here.




The IDE explores how people and businesses work, interact, and prosper in an era of profound digital transformation. We are leading the discussion on the digital economy.

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MIT IDE Paula Klein, Editor

MIT IDE Paula Klein, Editor

Addressing one of the most critical issues of our time: the impact of digital technology on businesses, the economy, and society.

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