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Intelligent Automation: Will it Take Our jobs or Make Them Better? (Part 1 of 2)

Roland Alston, Appian
December 19, 2019

Morgan Frank, Researcher, MIT Media Lab and Co-Author, "
Small Cities Face Greater Impact from Automation"

(This timely interview with MIT Media Lab Researcher Morgan Frank was first published in December 2018. It was one of our most popular posts. So, we decided to update and serialize it. Hope you enjoy the remix.)

Small cities (with less than 100,000 people) will be hit hardest by the explosion of intelligent automation and other disruptive trends. So says MITresearcher Morgan Frank (@mrfrank5790) who co-authored a breakthrough study called "Small Cities Face Greater Impact From Automation." Turns out that small cities tend to have a disproportionate amount of routine clerical work, such as cashier and food service jobs, all of which tend to compete with automation.

The good news is that the mainstreaming of intelligent automation will create benefits across the board but the key is to embrace it in a way that won't leave people behind. Frank reminds us of the fundamental difficulty of predicting how technology will impact labor. He says that we should be focusing, instead, on what makes our workers more resilient to disruptive trends. Turns out that re-skilling at-risk workers is an important piece of that puzzle.

Here's the math: By 2030, as many as 375 million workers or roughly 14% of the global workforce may need to switch occupational categories as digitization, automation, and advances in artificial intelligence disrupt the world of work,according to the McKinsey Global Institute report:Jobs lost, jobs gained: Workforce transitions in a time of automation. The study says that the kinds of skills companies require will shift, with profound implications for the careers workers will need to pursue.

"When we look at retraining programs that policymakers are designing in cities," Frank said in a recent interview with the Federal Reserve Boston, "they can often feel a little naive. "For example, you see that demand for software developers is on the rise and demand for cab drivers is going down. So, you think, hey, we'll take these drivers and teach them how to program and things will be great.

But we're seeing that this strategy really doesn't work in the long run. Because even if you teach drivers to program, it doesn't include all of the complementary skills required to be a software developer and leverage programming skills. If we can provide a better map of the skills required for job opportunities that are on the rise, then maybe, just maybe, we can do a better job of helping workers survive and thrive in the age of digital transformation.In this remix of a previous Digital Masters interview, Frank dropped some serious knowledge on:

    • Why workers in larger cities will experience less disruption from emerging technology

    • Which jobs are least likely to be replaced by technology

    • Competing and augmenting technology and how each impacts the workforce stack

    • Occupational polarization: What it is and why it matters

    • Why intelligent automation forces us to rethink how work gets done

Hope you enjoy the conversation.

Appian:To get things started, talk about your background and the research you're doing at the MIT Media Lab.

Frank: Sure, my background is in computer science, statistics and applied mathematics. But my focus is in computational social science, which is using data and mathematics to understand human behavior and society.In particular, I've been investigating the impact of automation on labor in the U.S., and especially how automation impacts cities.

"At the MIT Media Lab, we're focused on drilling down into the relationship between occupations and skills and technology. Then, we try to identify which occupations will benefit from the complementary nature of new technologies, and which (jobs) are at risk of competing with them."

Appian: In some circles, there's a lot of fear about robotics and automation and how they will disrupt the future of work.Critics are talking about the coming disruption of machine learning, algorithms, chatbots, voice recognition and intelligent automation. What do you make of that pessimistic view?

Frank: Based on our research at MIT, I think that the automation trend is not so alarming not in terms of current technologies and technologies in the pipeline today.But there are certain jobs and certain industries that should be concerned about automation.

Appian: Can you give us some examples?

Frank: Yes. For example, truck drivers are in direct competition with autonomous vehicles, which doesn't appear to be a complementary technology for truck drivers.

"But what's making the current automation conversation different from previous conversations is artificial intelligence trends like machine learning, and digital assistants.And what's different is that these technologies complement highly-skilled people."

Appian: In what ways?

Frank: Machine learning, for example, is making computer programmers more efficient at understanding data.It's not competing with them. Computer programmers are not losing work because of machine learning. (In contrast), truck drivers are in competition with self-driving cars.So, there's a juxtaposition between computer programmers and truck drivers.

Appian: So, let's step back and look at the big picture. Tell us about your research on the impact of automation on urban areas versus rural areas. You've said that some small cities will benefit from AI and automation, because they are near major institutions that employ skilled workers such as military bases, major universities and corporate research labs.So, where do you see automation having the biggest benefit geographically?


"With AI-related and cognitive technologies, we're seeing a lot more benefit in larger east coast cities in terms of augmenting the skills of highly-skilled labor in industries like tech and financial services, which have lots of high-skilled, knowledge workers."

We're also seeing the same thing in Silicon Valley, in Los Angeles, Portland and Seattle.

Appian: So, net-net, do you expect automation to create more jobs than it displaces?

Frank: That's a super tough question to answer. For anyone who is seriously studying these trends, it's hard to make a confident prediction.So, one way to think about this is that job creation definitely occurs with new technology.But it's just so hard to predict.We've got a quote from former IBM president Thomas Watson [1943] that there was a world market for maybe five computers.But today, everyone has a computer in their pocket or backpack.If I could predict the new employment opportunities that will come from new technology, I wouldn't be writing research papers [laughter], I'd be starting a company.

Appian: You've also said that one of the biggest impacts of automation is that it's redefining work. What did you mean by that?

Frank: The other side of this, is that technology often changes the skill requirements for specific jobs.And this can change fluidly over time, to reflect demand for individual tasks and skills. So, think about the robot arm on an assembly line.It's designed to do something very specific.And if you're talking about machine learning, there are machine learning algorithms designed to solve a specific class of problems. So, each algorithm is somewhat narrow in scope.

"The thing is that automation is happening at the level of specific tasks and skills. And the changing demand for workers that can perform these tasks and skills tends to bubble up as disruption of employment and wages in the labor market."

(Stay tuned for the final installment of this two-part interview on the rise of intelligent automation with MIT Media Lab Researcher Morgan Frank.)