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Editor’s note: In 2020, the MIT staff produced a comprehensive model Transfer on future work. Since then, the global pandemic has had a major impact on work and companies, providing the impetus for this future work, by the same authors. The book, from which the following excerpts are quoted, will be published by MIT Press on January 25, 2022.

A decade ago, powerful cell phones were still new, self-driving cars were not seen on public roads, and computers did not listen to conversations or respond to spoken questions. The possibility of robots getting jobs seemed out of reach, except for an assembly line or two. But as the emerging capabilities of robotics and artificial intelligence begin to grab the headlines and the popular imagination, researchers and commentators are beginning to warn that jobs long thought immune to automation — those that require expertise, judgment, creativity, and expert experience — may soon be done better by machines. The citizens of the industrialized countries watched, and they reacted with increasing fear.

Our research did not confirm the dystopian vision of robots heralding workers outside factory floors or that AI renders human expertise and judgment unnecessary. But she discovered something just as insidious: Amidst a technological ecosystem offering increased productivity and an economy generating so many jobs (at least until the Covid-19 crisis), we found a labor market in which the fruits are unevenly distributed, and so skewed towards the top, that the majority of workers have tasted Only a small bite of a large crop.

For most workers in the United States, the trajectory of productivity growth has deviated from the trajectory of wage growth four decades ago. This segregation had dire economic and social consequences: low-paid and insecure jobs filled by uneducated, university-educated workers; low labor force participation rates; weak upward movement across generations; and worsening racial disparities in incomes and employment that have not improved substantially in decades. While new technologies may have contributed to these poor outcomes, these outcomes were not an inevitable result of technological change, globalization, or market forces. Similar pressures from digitalization and globalization have affected most industrialized countries, yet their labor markets have fared better.

We know that history and economics show no fundamental conflict between technological change, full employment, and rising earnings. The dynamic interplay of task automation, innovation, and creation of new work, while always disruptive, is an essential wellspring of increased productivity. Innovation improves the quantity, quality, and variety of work that a worker can perform in a given time. This increased productivity, in turn, enables the improvement of living standards and the flourishing of human endeavours.

When innovation fails to drive opportunity, it breeds fear of the future: the suspicion that technological progress, even if it makes the country richer, will threaten many livelihoods. This fear commands a heavy price: political and regional divisions, distrust of institutions, and distrust of innovation itself. In American politics, the growing chasm between “haves” and “have-nots” has deepened the national divide over how society should respond to the needs of those at the bottom of the economic ladder.

The main challenge ahead – in fact, the work of the future – is to enhance labor market opportunities to meet, complement and shape technological innovation. This drive will require innovation in our labor market institutions by updating the laws, policies, standards, organizations and institutions that define the “rules of the game”.

The effects of technologies such as artificial intelligence and robotics on the labor market take years to unfold. But we don’t have time to waste preparing for it. If these technologies are deployed in today’s labor organizations, which have been designed for the last century, we will see effects similar to those seen in recent decades: downward pressure on wages and benefits, and an increasingly fractious labor market.

Building a future of work that reaps the profits of rapidly evolving automation and ever more powerful computers can provide opportunity and economic security for workers. To do this, we must foster institutional innovations that complement technological change.

The main challenge ahead – in fact, the work of the future – is to enhance labor market opportunities to meet, complement and shape technological innovation.

Long before the turmoil of the pandemic, our research on future work has shown how many people in our country are failing to thrive in a labor market that generates so many jobs but little economic security. The effects of the pandemic have made it even clearer: Despite the formal designation of many low-wage workers as “essential,” they have endured the most dangerous working conditions in the face of COVID-19, because most of their jobs cannot be done remotely.

Some predict that robots will soon take over these roles, although few are yet. Others see the indispensable role of human resilience, as it is human adaptability, not machine, that has allowed us to reorganize work on the fly during an epidemic. Still others view COVID-19 as the event of automation – a motivating force that will pull technologies from the future into the present as we learn how to deploy machines to jobs that humans cannot safely perform. Whatever the case, covid-19’s effects on technology and work will linger long after the pandemic, leading to changes that may look very different than anyone imagined in 2018.

Other forces reflected 2018’s visions of the future, including the estrangement between the world’s two largest economies and the outbreak of political upheaval and economic populism culminating in the violent attack on the US Capitol building in the wake of President Joe’s election in 2020. Biden. These pressures are reconfiguring alliances, dismantling and reorganizing global trade relations, and spurring new forms of electronic warfare, including disinformation, industrial-scale espionage, and cyber-compromise of critical infrastructure. There was friction between the United States and China before, but nothing compares to the split that is taking place now. What started as a trade war has turned into a technology war. China’s overall government approach to dealing with key industrial and technological goals poses a competitive challenge to Western economies, which typically take a decentralized, often business-led approach. It remains to be seen whether China’s focus on government dominance of data accumulation leads to technological progress beyond creating powerful tools to monitor and control its population.

The clash with China extends across the economy and threatens to stymie innovation, which is increasingly emerging from countries around the world as researchers collaborate across borders and time zones. How can we ensure that technological developments, when they occur, lead to a prosperity that is widely shared? How can the United States and its workers continue to play a leading role in inventing and shaping technologies and reaping the benefits?

There is no convincing historical or contemporary evidence that technological progress is leading us toward a future without jobs. On the contrary, we expect that in the next two decades, industrialized countries will have more jobs than workers to fill, and that robotics and automation will play an increasingly critical role in filling these gaps.

Astonishing advances in computing, communications, robotics, and artificial intelligence are reshaping industries as diverse as insurance, retail, healthcare, manufacturing, logistics, and transportation. But we observe significant time lags, often on a scale of decades, from the birth of the invention to its large-scale commercialization, uptake into business operations, widespread adoption, and the effects on the workforce. New industrial robots have been slow to move to small and medium-sized businesses, for example, and autonomous vehicles have not yet been widely deployed. In fact, the most profound labor-market impacts of the new technology we found were caused by robotics and artificial intelligence to a lesser degree than the continued diffusion of decades-old (though much improved) technologies such as the Internet, cloud computing, and mobile phones.

This timescale of technological change provides the opportunity to formulate policies, develop skills, and stimulate investments to constructively shape the path of change toward the greatest social and economic benefit.

What will be required to reshape and refocus US institutions and policies to create the shared prosperity that is possible if we are willing to make the necessary changes?

We begin by looking at how workers are trained to make their way in a rapidly changing economy. Enabling workers to remain productive in an ever-evolving workplace requires enabling them to learn new skills throughout life—in primary and secondary schools, in vocational programs and colleges, and in continuing adult training programs. The distinctive American system of worker training has its shortcomings, but it also has unique virtues. For example, it provides many entry points for workers who may want to reshape their career paths or need to find new work after layoffs. We argue that the United States should invest in existing educational and training institutions and innovate to create new training models to make continuing skills development available, attractive, and cost-effective.

But even well-trained and motivated workers need and deserve a sense of basic safety. Higher labor productivity did not translate into broad increases in income because labor market institutions and policies fell into disrepair.

Peer countries from Sweden to Germany to Canada faced the same economic, technological, and global forces as the United States, and enjoyed equally strong economic growth, but achieved better results for their workers. What characterizes the United States are institutional changes and specific policy choices that have failed to mitigate, and in some cases amplify, the consequences of these labor market pressures.

The United States has allowed traditional channels of workers’ voice to atrophy without promoting new institutions or supporting existing ones. It allowed the federal minimum wage to recede into almost irrelevant, lowering the minimum wage in the labor market for low-wage workers. It has adopted a policy-driven expansion of free trade with the developing world, Mexico and China in particular, which has increased GNI, yet it has failed to address the resulting labor losses and retraining needs of workers displaced by these policies. .

There is no evidence that this strategy of embracing growth while ignoring the plight of ordinary workers has paid off for the United States. The United States’ leadership in growth and innovation is long-standing—the country led the world throughout the twentieth century, and especially in the several decades immediately following World War II—while the labor market illnesses documented here are recent. These failures do not necessarily result from innovation or constitute costs worth paying for the other economic benefits that it ostensibly provide. We can do better.

Our realization of the centrality of good jobs to human well-being and the centrality of innovation to creating good jobs leads us to question how investments in innovation can be leveraged to drive job creation, accelerate growth, and meet rising competitive challenges.

Investments in innovation expand the economic pie, which is critical to meeting the challenges posed by a globalized economy characterized by fierce technological competition. Throughout our study, we found technologies that have been direct results of US federal investment in research and development over the past century and beyond: the Internet, advanced semiconductors, artificial intelligence, robotics, and self-driving vehicles, to name a few. These new goods and services generate new industries and professions that require new skills and provide new opportunities for profits. The United States has an excellent record of supporting innovations from inventors and entrepreneurs, and creative capital to support and create new businesses.

Adopting new technology creates winners and losers, and it will continue to do so. Seeking input from all stakeholders—including workers, businesses, investors, educational institutions, nonprofits, and government—can minimize harms, maximize benefits to individuals and communities, and help ensure that the labor market of the future offers benefits, opportunities, and a measure of economic security for all.

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