By Mark Anderson
AI experts gathered at MIT last week, with the aim of predicting the role artificial intelligence will play in the future of work. Will it be the enemy of the human worker? Will it prove to be a savior? Or will it be just another innovation—like electricity or the internet?
As IEEE Spectrum previously reported, this conference (“AI and the Future of Work Congress”), held at MIT’s Kresge Auditorium, offered sometimes pessimistic outlooks on the job- and industry-destroying path that AI and automation seems to be taking: Self-driving technology will put truck drivers out of work; smart law clerk algorithms will put paralegals out of work; robots will (continue to) put factory and warehouse workers out of work.
Andrew McAfee, co-director of MIT’s Initiative on the Digital Economy, said even just in the past couple years, he’s noticed a shift in the public’s perception of AI. “I remember from previous versions of this conference, it felt like we had to make the case that we’re living in a period of accelerating change and that AI’s going to have a big impact,” he said. “Nobody had to make that case today.”
Elisabeth Reynolds, executive director of MIT’s Task Force on the Work of the Future, noted that following the path of least resistance is not a viable way forward. “If we do nothing, we’re in trouble,” she said. “The future will not take care of itself. We have to do something about it.”
Panelists and speakers spoke about championing productive uses of AI in the workplace, which ultimately benefit both employees and customers.
As one example, Zeynep Ton, professor at MIT Sloan School of Management, highlighted retailer Sam’s Club’s recent rollout of a program called Sam’s Garage. Previously customers shopping for tires for their car spent somewhere between 30 and 45 minutes with a Sam’s Club associate paging through manuals and looking up specs on websites.
But with an AI algorithm, they were able to cut that spec hunting time down to 2.2 minutes. “Now instead of wasting their time trying to figure out the different tires, they can field the different options and talk about which one would work best [for the customer],” she said. “This is a great example of solving a real problem, including [enhancing] the experience of the associate as well as the customer.”
“We think of it as an AI-first world that’s coming,” said Scott Prevost, VP of engineering at Adobe. Prevost said AI agents in Adobe’s software will behave something like a creative assistant or intern who will take care of more mundane tasks for you.
Prevost cited an internal survey of Adobe customers that found 74 percent of respondents’ time was spent doing repetitive work—the kind that might be automated by an AI script or smart agent.
“It used to be you’d have the resources to work on three ideas [for a creative pitch or presentation],” Prevost said. “But if the AI can do a lot of the production work, then you can have 10 or 100. Which means you can actually explore some of the further out ideas. It’s also lowering the bar for everyday people to create really compelling output.”
In addition to changing the nature of work, noted a number of speakers at the event, AI is also directly transforming the workforce.
Jacob Hsu, CEO of the computer career placement company Catalyte spoke about using AI for matching recruits to software developer jobs. Prospects who sign up with Catalyte take a battery of tests. The company’s AI algorithms then match each prospect’s skills with the field best suited for their talents.
“We want to be like the Harry Potter Sorting Hat,” Hsu said.
Guillermo Miranda, IBM’s global head of corporate social responsibility, said IBM has increasingly been hiring based not on credentials but on skills. For instance, he said, as much as 15 percent of the company’s new hires in some divisions do not have a traditional four-year college degree. “As a company, we need to be much more clear about hiring by skills,” he said. “It takes discipline. It takes conviction. It takes a little bit of enforcing with H.R. by the business leaders. But if you hire by skills, it works.”
Ardine Williams, Amazon’s VP of workforce development, said the e-commerce giant has been experimenting with developing skills of the employees at its warehouses (a.k.a. fulfillment centers) with an eye toward putting them in a position to get higher-paying work with other companies.
She described an agreement Amazon had made in its Dallas fulfillment center with aircraft maker Sikorsky, which had been experiencing a shortage of skilled workers for its nearby factory. So Amazon offered to its employees a free certification training to seek higher-paying work at Sikorsky.
“I do that because now I have an attraction mechanism—like a G.I. Bill,” Williams said. The program is also only available for employees who have worked at least a year with Amazon. So their program offers medium-term job retention, while ultimately moving workers up the wage ladder.
Radha Basu, CEO of AI data company iMerit, said her firm aggressively hires from the pool of women and under-resourced minority communities in the U.S. and India. The company specializes in turning unstructured data (e.g. video or audio feeds) into tagged and annotated data for machine learning, natural language processing, or computer vision applications.
“There is a motivation with these young people to learn these things,” she said. “It comes with no baggage.”
Alastair Fitzpayne, executive director of The Aspen Institute’s Future of Work Initiative, said the future of work ultimately means, in bottom-line terms, the future of human capital. “We have an R&D tax credit,” he said. “We’ve had it for decades. It provides credit for companies that make new investment in research and development. But we have nothing on the human capital side that’s analogous.”
So a company that’s making a big investment in worker training does it on their own dime, without any of the tax benefits that they might accrue if they, say, spent it on new equipment or new technology. Fitzpayne said a simple tweak to the R&D tax credit could make a big difference by incentivizing new investment programs in worker training. Which still means Amazon’s pre-existing worker training programs—for a company that already famously pays no taxes—would not count.
“We need a different way of developing new technologies,” said Daron Acemoglu, MIT Institute Professor of Economics. He pointed to the clean energy sector as an example. First a consensus around the problem needs to emerge. Then a broadly agreed-upon set of goals and measurements needs to be developed (e.g., that AI and automation would, for instance, create at least X new jobs for every Y jobs that it eliminates).
Then it just needs to be implemented.
“We need to build a consensus that, along the path we’re following at the moment, there are going to be increasing problems for labor,” Acemoglu said. “We need a mindset change. That it is not just about minimizing costs or maximizing tax benefits, but really worrying about what kind of society we’re creating and what kind of environment we’re creating if we keep on just automating and [eliminating] good jobs.”
This post was updated on 4 December 2019.