Erik Brynjolfsson Presents Policy Guidelines for the Age of Automation

By TAP Staff Blogger

Posted on June 17, 2016


Given the technological surge of machine learning and automation becoming commonplace, some tasks typically performed by human beings are more effectively being executed by computers, or will be in the near future. In a new article written for Foreign Affairs, MIT professor Erik Brynjolfsson and his colleague Andrew McAfee, also with MIT, provide policy guidelines for the age of automation.


Below are a few excerpts from “Human Work in the Robotic Future.”


Most important, humanity has recently become much better at build¬ing machines that can figure things out on their own. By studying lots of examples, identifying relevant patterns, and applying them to new examples, computers have been able to achieve human and super¬human levels of performance in a range of tasks: recognizing street signs, parsing human speech, identifying credit fraud, modeling how materials will behave under different conditions, and more.


As a result, jobs that involve matching patterns, in particular, from customer service to medical diagnosis, will increasingly be performed by machines. Because U.S. companies are both the world’s most prolific producers and the world’s most enthusiastic consumers of technology, many of the effects of the digital revolution will likely be seen first in the United States. Low-wage jobs are especially at risk: in its 2016 report to the president, the U.S. Council of Economic Advisers estimated that 83 percent of jobs paying less than $20 per hour could be automated.


Such a radical reshaping of work will call for new policies to protect the vulnerable while reaping the gains of the new age. The choices made now will prove particularly consequential. The wrong interventions will hurt the economic prospects of millions of people around the world and leave them losing a race against the machines, while the right ones will give them the best chance of keeping up as technology speeds forward.


Two basic principles should guide decisions: allow flexibility and experimentation instead of imposing constraints, and directly encourage work instead of planning for its obsolescence.


A More Flexible Economy

In times of rapid change, when the world is even less predictable than usual, people and organizations need to be given greater freedom to experiment and innovate. In other words, when one aspect of the capitalist dynamic of creative destruction is speeding up—in this case, the substitution of digital technologies for cognitive work—the right response is to encourage the other elements of the system to also move faster. Everything from individual tasks to entire industries is being disrupted, so it’s foolish to try to lock in place select elements of the existing order. Yet often, the temptation to try to preserve the status quo has proved irresistible.


The Value of Work

The second principle, that policy should directly encourage labor, has a straightforward justification: work’s value both for individuals and for communities goes well beyond its financial role.


In times of disruption, it is impossible to predict exactly how the work force will be affected. The best strategy is not to try to slow the technology but to strive for flexibility, so that people, organizations, and institutions can learn and grow their way into a healthy future. Furthermore, given the importance of work beyond the income it generates, policy should encourage work rather than assuming we live in a world without the need for it.


In Conclusion

The rise of intelligent computers can and should be good news for the economy. It will bring great material prosperity, better health, and other benefits that can’t be foreseen. But a broadly shared prosperity is not automatic or inevitable. In the new age of machines, it will take humans to achieve that.



Erik Brynjolfsson is the Schussel Family Professor at the MIT Sloan School of Management, Director of the MIT Initiative on the Digital Economy, Research Associate at NBER, and Chairman of the MIT Sloan Management Review. His research examines the effects of information technologies on business strategy, productivity and performance, Internet commerce, pricing models and intangible assets.


Andrew McAfee, an MIT scientist, studies how technological progress changes business, the economy, and society. He is the coauthor with Erik Brynjolfsson of the bestseller The Second Machine Age: Work, Progress, and Prosperity in a Time of Brilliant Technologies and the cofounder of the MIT Initiative on the Digital Economy.


Read the full article: “Human Work in the Robotic Future
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