Of Humans and Robots: Artificial Intelligence and the Future of Work Event at MIT Brings Together Google, IBM, and More

On November 1 and 2, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) hosted an event called AI (Artificial Intelligence) and The Future of Work. The event was hosted by Daniela Rus, Director of MIT CSAIL (Computer Science Artificial Intelligence Lab) and Erik Brynjolfsson, Director of the MIT Initiative on the Digital Economy. The program included faculty and leadership from Carnegie Mellon, MIT, NYU, Rice University and the University of Massachusetts as well as industry experts from Alphabet (parent company of Google), Facebook, IBM, LinkedIn, Microsoft and others.

Let me preface this piece by saying that I have been known to address voice-based GPS tools as “Robot.” As in, “I heard you, Robot!” “Sorry, Robot.” Or, “Thanks for re-routing me, Robot!” You know what I’m talking about.

So the question that needs answering for me as I proceed with this piece is — what is a robot?

Well, Wikipedia defines “robot” as follows: “A robot is a machine — especially one programmable by a computer — capable of carrying out a complex series of actions automatically.”

So now that we have that established — let’s get back to the MIT event last week. Early on in the day, speakers explored how technology can augment existing jobs done by humans.

My Tweet above gives one not-so-threatening example of technology’s impact on healthcare jobs. Another example discussed, a bit more worrying, was the rise in image recognition as part of artificial intelligence and its potential impact on the radiology profession. Throughout the day, the topic of tech’s impact on workers was the undercurrent. There was much discussion around how workers and employers will keep up with the growing capabilities of robots and resulting shifts in job responsibilities, specifically drawing attention to the need for lifelong learning.

Allen Blue, Co-Founder and Vice President of Product Management at LinkedIn, sat on a panel about navigating the first phase of change. LinkedIn worked with the World Economic Forum on The Future of Jobs report, released in January 2016.

The executive summary of the report points to artificial intelligence as one of the technological drivers of change in industries overall, impacting industries and business models starting in 2018. The report also points to a small impact of artificial intelligence being felt by workers already.

When you look to the future workforce strategies reported, you start to see the role of education clearly. Both reskilling existing employees and developing partnerships with higher education were in the top three strategies listed by respondents.

Eric Schmidt, Executive Chairman at Alphabet, spoke about his organization’s commitment to workforce training. A bit of research pointed me to Google.org’s donations to Goodwill and 4-H (a combined $11.5M) that exemplify this commitment. He also shared how he thinks work will change for people as innovations like artificial intelligence become more prevalent across industries.

Overall, the speakers created a drumbeat of how the world will change due to artificial intelligence and how work and education must change too.

This drumbeat came to life in the person of Rusty Justice, Co-Owner of Bit Source, an eastern Kentucky software company that retrains coal miners to become developers. He spoke to the need for more broadband in Appalachia, which would open the door for more development of the tech industry there and provide meaningful employment to those in the shrinking coal industry.

Finally, there were some great panels focused on how AI could be impactful in teaching and learning and how education/reskilling could evolve to be more consumable, affordable and efficient to support workers when, where and how they need it.

Becky Frankiewicz, President of Manpower Group, Fred Goff, CEO of Jobcase, and others throughout the day spoke to today’s workers coping with stagnating wages and juggling multiple jobs.

Meanwhile, there are millions of unfilled job openings. By matching those openings with workers who have adjacent skills, education can fill the gap and bring opportunity.

But in order to do this, education must be accessible financially. Much of higher education has become unattainable, even “elitist,” as one speaker called it. Hearing this was interesting in a well-appointed auditorium at one of the most prestigious higher education institutions in the country.

The subject matter expertise provided by Daniela and Erik and their MIT colleagues gave me the context I needed to bring the two topics — AI and The Future of Work — together in a relevant way.

These topics are not only pressing matters for education and the future of our economy, they also happen to be related to podcast series we are working on here at EdTech Times. If you’d like to hear multiple perspectives on the key issue of higher education affordability, please have a listen to our Student Financial Aid and Debt podcast series. And if you are interested in alternative credentials, stay tuned for that series launching soon.

For future series, we are interested in exploring AI in edtech. So please do reach out to us if you have stories to tell about this evolving space!

Hester Tinti-Kane

Hester Tinti-Kane

Hester Tinti-Kane is the CEO of EdTech Times. She's worked in digital media and education for over 10 years. Hester is passionate about transformative technology in education and business.