Three years ago, robots, artificial intelligence (AI), and self-driving cars seemed to be coming fast. A widely cited study projected nearly half of all jobs in industrialized countries could soon be performed by robots or AI. A New Yorker cover published in late 2017 showed robots striding to work on a sidewalk where a disheveled human panhandler begged for coins. During the 2019 Super Bowl, six TV commercials featured robots or AI-enabled assistants. One beer advertisement showed robots gleefully surpassing humans in running, bicycling, and golfing, but ended with a robot gazing wistfully through a window at people socializing in a bar. Humans would soon be outcompeted in every arena except social drinking, this ad seemed to say.
In this context, MIT President L. Rafael Reif commissioned the MIT Task Force on the Work of the Future in the spring of 2018. He tasked us with understanding the relationships between emerging technologies and work, to help shape public discourse around realistic expectations of technology, and to explore strategies to enable a future of shared prosperity. The Task Force is co-chaired by this report’s authors: Professors David Autor and David Mindell and executive director Dr. Elisabeth Reynolds. Its members include more than 20 faculty members drawn from 12 departments at MIT, as well as over 20 graduate students.
In the two-and-a-half years since the Task Force set to work, autonomous vehicles, robotics, and AI have advanced remarkably. But the world has not been turned on its head by automation, nor has the labor market. Despite massive private investment, technology deadlines have been pushed back, part of a normal evolution as breathless promises turn into pilot trials, business plans, and early deployments — the diligent, if prosaic, work of making real technologies work in real settings to meet the demands of hard-nosed customers and managers.
Yet, if our research did not confirm the dystopian vision of robots ushering workers off of factory floors or artificial intelligence rendering superfluous human expertise and judgment, it did uncover something equally pernicious: Amidst a technological ecosystem delivering rising productivity, and an economy generating plenty of jobs (at least until the COVID-19 crisis), we found a labor market in which the fruits are so unequally distributed, so skewed towards the top, that the majority of workers have tasted only a tiny morsel of a vast harvest.
Four decades ago, for most U.S. workers, the trajectory of productivity growth diverged from the trajectory of wage growth. This decoupling had baleful economic and social consequences: low-paid, insecure jobs held by non-college workers; low participation rates in the labor force; weak upward mobility across generations; and festering earnings and employment disparities among races that have not substantially improved in decades. While new technologies have contributed to these poor results, these outcomes were not an inevitable consequence of technological change, nor of globalization, nor of market forces. Similar pressures from digitalization and globalization affected most industrialized countries, and yet their labor markets fared better.
History and economics show no intrinsic conflict among technological change, full employment, and rising earnings. The dynamic interplay among task automation, innovation, and new work creation, while always disruptive, is a primary wellspring of rising productivity. Innovation improves the quantity, quality, and variety of work that a worker can accomplish in a given time. This rising productivity, in turn, enables improving living standards and the flourishing of human endeavors. Indeed, in what should be a virtuous cycle, rising productivity provides society with the resources to invest in those whose livelihoods are disrupted by the changing structure of work.
Where innovation fails to drive opportunity, however, it generates a palpable fear of the future: the suspicion that technological progress will make the country wealthier while threatening livelihoods of many. This fear exacts a high price: political and regional divisions, distrust of institutions, and mistrust of innovation itself.
The last four decades of economic history give credence to that fear. The central challenge ahead, indeed the work of the future, is to advance labor market opportunity to meet, complement, and shape technological innovations. This drive will require innovating in our labor market institutions by modernizing the laws, policies, norms, organizations, and enterprises that set the “rules of the game.”
As this report documents, the labor market impacts of technologies like AI and robotics are taking years to unfold. But we have no time to spare in preparing for them. If those technologies deploy into the labor institutions of today, which were designed for the last century, we will see similar effects to recent decades: downward pressure on wages, skills, and benefits, and an increasingly bifurcated labor market. This report, and the MIT Work of the Future Task Force, suggest a better alternative: building a future for work that harvests the dividends of rapidly advancing automation and ever-more powerful computers to deliver opportunity and economic security for workers. To channel the rising productivity stemming from technological innovations into broadly shared gains, we must foster institutional innovations that complement technological change.