Work of the Future Task Force report calls attention to exacerbated inequality due to technology 

Still, risk of robot-induced “job apocalypse” is exaggerated, report says

The MIT Task Force on the Future of Work released an interim report Sept. 3 that details its findings on the impact of technology on the labor market and economy. The report said that the challenge we currently face and are likely to face in the near future is not too few jobs, but rather the quality of those jobs and how accessible those jobs are to less-educated people. While technology development has caused an economic growth, this growth has expanded the upper and lower classes at the expense of the middle class. 

The report will be presented at a briefing at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. Sept. 10, according to an email from the MIT News Office to The Tech. President L. Rafael Reif and MIT researchers will give remarks. 

The Task Force was first convened by Reif in Spring 2018 to “understand the relationships between emerging technologies and work, and to explore strategies to enable a future of shared prosperity,” according to the report. 

The Task Force is co-chaired by David Autor, professor of economics, and David Mindell, professor of science, technology, and society. The executive director of the Task Force is Elisabeth Reynolds, executive director of the MIT Industrial Performance Center.

To better prepare the U.S. for the challenges resulting from these emerging technologies, the report identifies some areas in which policies can be implemented to maximize society’s benefit from technology and mitigate its potential negative consequences. 

The report recommends investing more in postsecondary education and training venues like community colleges, work-based learning, and online learning. These are “the educational institutions that will have the greatest impact on the future job market,” Autor said in an interview with The Tech.

To achieve this goal, public institutions must create incentives for private firms to invest in labor at the same level that they do for traditional capital development, the report said. 

“You don’t pay capital gains on stocks until you sell them,” Autor said. “Our system is really slanted in the direction of favoring capital investment over labor. If the government [incentivized investing more] in workers, then firms might say, ‘Why not?’”

There is much anxiety about the job market due to the perception that emerging technologies will reduce the number of jobs available to humans, particularly low-skilled jobs. The report argues that these fears are exaggerated. “The hype is way, way ahead of reality,” Autor said.

However, this anxiety is a manifestation of an important trend in wages over the past forty years: while wages of college-educated adults have increased, the wages for high school dropouts, high school graduates, and even those with some college education have been stagnant since the 1980s. This stagnation was driven in part by technological developments, and it contributes to the level of inequality in the U.S. today, the report said.

This fear has its own impact on the job market, as it causes there to be job shortages in fields that are perceived to be eliminated in the near future. “People say, ‘Oh god, all of those jobs will be gone — I’m not going to enter that career,’” Autor said. 

Autonomous vehicles are an example the report uses. They may replace myriad jobs that require driving; more than three million people currently work as vehicle drivers in the United States. Fortunately, “rapid and total transition to vehicle autonomy appears highly unlikely,” the report said.

“While [autonomous vehicles] will be a part of our future, we think they are relatively far off,” Reynolds said in an interview with The Tech. “Today’s truck driver is less at risk than, say, truck drivers 10 years in the future. Right now, we don’t have enough truck drivers.”

The Task Force has focused its research on improving work, not replacing work. “Work is intrinsically valuable to individuals and to society as a whole,” the report said. The Task Force will release a final report in about a year, which will include more specific policy recommendations. This includes having a more international focus and incorporate data and evidence from countries like China, Kenya, and Brazil.