When commencement speakers share their wisdom and career advice with college grads next month, they might want to add a dose of techno-realism to the inspirational anecdotes. Because the truth is that the labor market is on the verge of a long-term boom—that is, for intelligent machines that will compete in the years to come with millions of ambitious college grads.
The Second Machine Age
But if MIT professor Erik Brynjolfsson, co-author with Andrew McAfee of the bestselling book, The Second Machine Age , were addressing those grads, his speech wouldn’t be all doom and gloom. While AI and robotics make routine processing tasks fast and cheap, he argues, we’ll also see growth in fields like nursing and sales—jobs that require interpersonal, creative, and entrepreneurial skills. Brynjolfsson says that just as the Industrial Revolution spurred economic growth and new ways to work, this next wave of technology will seed new career opportunities for humans, too.
The catch, says Brynjolfsson, is that the very schools from which grads are about to emerge aren’t prepping students properly for the future. They teach rote memorization and order-taking—skills that machines make obsolete. The onus, then, falls on next-gen workers to develop innately human capabilities that complement the routine work of machines, Bryjolfsson says. That’s a tall order, so we asked him what career advice he gives current students about preparing to work alongside the bots.
What skills do you tell your students to focus on now that machines are taking over routine jobs?
There are jobs that machines are substitutes for, jobs that machines are complements for, and jobs that machines don’t affect at all. Your strategy as a student should be to stay far, far away from things that machines are substitutes for, like routine information processing.
You want to try to find jobs where machines are complements. Things that as machines get cheaper and more powerful, they make those skills more valuable. Data scientist is a perfect example. With the proliferation of digital data coming online from the Internet of Things, people who are able to take advantage of large datasets will become more valuable. We’re teaching a new course at MIT that’s essentially a laboratory for working with big data.
The third category is skills that machines just don’t affect very much yet. I think we’ll see employment growth in jobs that require nurturing and caring, interpersonal skills, and negotiating. Machines aren’t substitutes and they’re not complements for jobs like nursing, teaching, sales and leadership, and coaching. The net effect will be that they’ll be relatively safe for a while.
Why excites you most about where tech is taking our society?
I believe we can shift curriculums that teach creativity and interpersonal skills, entrepreneurship and teamwork. The Montessori method is a good example. Here at MIT Sloan we push students to work in teams. That kind of revolution in education matches up with the skills that complement or aren’t affected by technology. If you have a creative idea, you can scale it to billions of people today in a way you never could before. Some of my students have written apps that in a few months reached over a million people. That’s something that never would have happened 20 or 30 years ago. There’s a real extra value to creativity that wasn’t there before.
As both students and teachers, we have to prepare our skills for where the technology is going in the next 10 or 20 years, and that means start moving away from rote knowledge learning and conformism and towards encouraging creativity and interpersonal skills.
My hope is that we’ll do that fast enough and the net result will be that this technology creates shared prosperity for a lot of people.
What worries you most about the new machine age on the horizon?
I’m worried that we won’t be quick enough to change our own skills and to teach new skills. There’s a huge mismatch between the kind of education that was important and successful in the 20th century and the kind that’s going to be needed in the 21st century. In Henry Ford’s era, industry needed people who could follow instructions and work on big assembly lines.
Today, routine information processing is something that machines do extremely well. Our schools need to move beyond simply teaching people how to follow instruction and do routine information work, toward creativity and interpersonal skills, toward entrepreneurship and teamwork. We need a revolution in education that’s every bit as big as the revolution in technology.