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Computers won't replace human capacity for problem-solving in workplace, authors write

Frank Levy
Frank Levy

A new book by MIT Professor Frank Levy and Richard Murnane of Harvard University portrays the current unsettled American labor landscape with its widening gap between high- and low-skill level jobs, offers suggestions for how to use education to prepare students and workers for employment, and gives a success story from a Boston elementary school.

"The New Division of Labor: How Computers Are Changing the Job Market," published by Princeton University Press, is an outgrowth of work Levy and Murnane did with David Autor, associate professor of economics at MIT.

According to Levy, the Daniel Rose Professor of Urban Economics, the best way to understand the current stark trend is not to look offshore to developing countries where teleworkers are employed, but to look more closely at the domestic economy, where new technology is causing more dislocation than international trade.

"Whether we look at speech recognition software or airport kiosks for boarding passes, technology is disrupting where work is done, the ways work is done and the skills you need to do available jobs," Levy said.

From one perspective, this disruption is nothing new, he noted. In 1940, "less than one-quarter of all male workers had graduated from high school," Levy said. "But the demands for white collar and industrial skills grew and a high school diploma soon became a necessity. Then, as now, there were new jobs requiring entirely new skills."

Today's "new division" is occurring because of a contemporary version of a similar dislocation of workers--those who were educated and trained to do work that is repetitive and increasingly replaceable by technology, according to Levy. How we can prepare people for non-routine work, the kind that computers cannot do, he asks?

At the core of the "New Division" is an irony: the best way for humans to keep from being replaced by computers is to be, well, more human.

In researching their book, Levy and Murnane, both labor economists, devoted time and attention to field work, studying the way work is conducted. The result is a series of careful portraits of individual workers applying knowledge, skill and intuition to diagnose and solve complex problems. A particularly compelling segment presents an auto mechanic's process of diagnosing and fixing a car's baffling ailment. According to Levy, resourcefulness in managing non-routine tasks is an irreplaceably human way of being smart.

Schools and workplaces need to be designed to support the exercise of literacy, communications skills and complex problem-solving, the authors assert. The new job market is one in which workers--office workers as well as electricians and plumbers--need to develop these human capacities.

The "New Division" success story occurs at the Richard T. Murphy School, a public elementary school in Boston, at which teachers utilize results from standardized testing to tailor their programs.

"Many changes were basic. The school reorganized teaching schedules so teachers in the same grade level had the same free period to work together on curriculum. One faculty member used spreadsheets to organize many pages of state test score printouts so that teachers could identify the specific topics where students did badly. But making these basic changes took the leadership of an excellent principal and committed teachers," Levy said.

Levy noted that changing educational programs for young students is essential, but so is addressing our national and cultural notions about education, intelligence and social class. As resourcefulness and the capacity to handle non-routine work grow ever more important, old prejudices about what an educated person looks like must fade.

"This society associates education with clean hands. But there are very educated people with dirty hands," Levy said. The best way to support a resilient economy and democracy is through education that nourishes skills and capacities that may be complemented but not replaced by computers, the book concludes.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on January 26, 2005 (download PDF).

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