New America Weekly

Inclusion in the Digital Age

Weekly Article
May 26, 2016

Digital technology is changing our world. Autonomous vehicles promise fewer auto accidents and less driver fatigue. Smart healthcare diagnostics are saving lives. Education is available globally and online. Robots automate everything from heart surgery, to factory tasks, to everyday household chores.

In their groundbreaking book, The Second Machine Age, Professor Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee described digital technology’s revolutionary impact on business, the economy, and society.  As director and co-director, respectively, of the MIT Initiative on the Digital Economy (IDE) (and, in the interest of full disclosure, my colleagues), their argument was that, with productivity, wealth, and profits at historic highs, digital innovation has created unprecedented bounty for a great number of people.

And yet, while the pace of economic change is exceptional, and wealth has been generated for society and for innovators, the authors also say that progress and societal benefits are not equally distributed. Taxi and truck drivers may be displaced by driverless cars, and robots might take jobs away from factory workers and service providers. In economic terms, overall GDP is growing but median incomes since 1999 have actually fallen. Metaphorically, the economic pie is growing, yet many people’s slices are shrinking. And so while technology is creating bounty for society and wealth for innovators at an unprecedented pace, changes in our economy are actually leaving many people — especially middle- and base-level earners — worse off.

This is the great economic paradox of our time, but it doesn’t have to define our future if we take actions to adjust it now. Therefore, we at MIT’s IDE propose there are four ways we can enable more people to meaningfully engage in work and to fully experience the prosperity of the Second Machine Age:

1.) Skills: We re-skill members of our workforce to prepare them for the future.

Today’s in-demand jobs will be very different from those required in the future. To ensure prosperity in the face of accelerating technology, we need to position people from all walks of life to leverage technological advances through strategic re-skilling and lifelong learning. For example, software coding for underserved populations or vocational training for mid-career workers may be needed. STEM curricula for high-school students will need to match the demand for high-skilled labor.

2.) Matching: We connect qualified individuals with open opportunities for work.

Many labor markets have not kept pace with rapid changes in technology, barring those who struggle with unemployment, underemployment, and/or stagnant or declining wages from finding new prospects. Improved matching of employees with jobs will allow a broader swath of the population to share in technology-driven prosperity. Innovators could develop ways to connect more diverse job candidates with technology companies, or non-profit and for-profit organizations could forge new partnerships. Entrepreneurial ‘gig-economy’ companies might connect creative service professionals with consumers.

3.) Humans + Machines: We augment human labor with technology.

Digital technologies offer new ways to amplify our unique human capabilities and create fresh sources of value. While fear that “the robots are taking our jobs” is commonly raised, combinations of humans and machines working together offer the greatest opportunity for progress and success. Advances in collaborative robotics, machine learning, and other AI innovations, can enhance the value we can create for society as a whole and make tasks easier and more efficient. This could take the form of collaborative robots that enable people to minimize repetitive work and increase on-the-job safety, or software that automates workflow to allow focus on more inventive tasks.

4.) New Models: We create new operational practices and business models to revolutionize the existing labor market.

As technology reshapes existing industries, new forms of income-generation and work are emerging as well. New models and practices must also help workers adjust to and succeed in the evolving employment landscape. As on-demand business paradigms shift risk away from employers and toward employees, it’s critical to make certain that people benefit from the significant changes to the nature of work and that worker rights are protected. For instance, tools to encourage financial savings could be developed or platforms could emerge that create entirely new job opportunities and income streams.

Those four proposals aren’t an accident. They are the key areas in which our organization, the MIT Initiative on the Digital Economy, is looking for applicants as part of the Inclusive Innovation Competition (IIC), where we are awarding a total of $1 million to inventive organizations— whether for-profit or non-profit, of any size, age, or type, and from any nation. The possibilities for applicants are limitless: From start-ups that actively embrace the Good Work Code to non-profit organizations that leverage technology for worker advocacy; from corporate initiatives that create greater diversity within the workforce to new technologies that increase human capacity for work.

No single organization can shape the future of work and guarantee economic security, but together we can shape a more equitable, inclusive, productive, and sustainable future of work for all. Digital technology is changing our world. It is up to us to make sure that all of society is brought along into this brighter future.