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3 Questions: Shaping the future of work in an age of AI

Daron Acemoglu, David Autor, and Simon Johnson, faculty co-directors of the new MIT Shaping the Future of Work Initiative, describe why the work matters and what they hope to achieve.
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Simon Johnson speaks from behind a lectern at MIT. Boston’s skyline is out of focus in the windows behind him.
Simon Johnson delivers remarks at the MIT Shaping the Future of Work Launch Event.
Photo courtesy of the MIT Shaping the Future of Work Initiative.
David Autor speaks from behind a lectern at MIT.
David Autor introduces panelists at the MIT Shaping the Future of Work Launch Event.
Photo courtesy of the MIT Shaping the Future of Work Initiative.
Daron Acemoglu speaks in front of an audience from a lectern next to a sign with the MIT logo and "Shaping the Future of Work."
Daron Acemoglu welcomes attendees to the MIT Shaping the Future of Work Launch Event.
Photo courtesy of the MIT Shaping the Future of Work Initiative.

The MIT Shaping the Future of Work Initiative, co-directed by MIT professors Daron Acemoglu, David Autor, and Simon Johnson, celebrated its official launch on Jan. 22. The new initiative’s mission is to analyze the forces that are eroding job quality and labor market opportunities for non-college workers and identify innovative ways to move the economy onto a more equitable trajectory. Here, Acemoglu, Autor, and Johnson speak about the origins, goals, and plans for their new initiative.

Q: What was the impetus for creating the MIT Shaping the Future of Work Initiative?

David Autor: The last 40 years have been increasingly difficult for the 65 percent of U.S. workers who do not have a four-year college degree. Globalization, automation, deindustrialization, de-unionization, and changes in policy and ideology have led to fewer jobs, declining wages, and lower job quality, resulting in widening inequality and shrinking opportunities.

The prevailing economic view has been that this erosion is inevitable — that the best we can do is focus on the supply side, educating workers to meet market demands, or perhaps providing some offsetting transfers to those who have lost employment opportunities.

Underpinning this fatalism is a paradigm which says that the factors shaping demand for work, such as technological change, are immutable: workers must adapt to these forces or be left behind. This assumption is false. The direction of technology is something we choose, and the institutions that shape how these forces play out (e.g., minimum wage laws, regulations, collective bargaining, public investments, social norms) are also endogenous.

To challenge a prevailing narrative, it is not enough to simply say that it is wrong — to truly change a paradigm we must lead by showing a viable alternative pathway. We must answer what sort of work we want and how we can make policies and shape technology that builds that future.

Q: What are your goals for the initiative?

Daron Acemoglu: The initiative's ambition is not modest. Simon, David, and I are hoping to make advances in new empirical work to interpret what has happened in the recent past and understand how different types of technologies could be impacting prosperity and inequality. We want to contribute to the emergence of a coherent framework that can inform us about how institutions and social forces shape the trajectory of technology, and that helps us to identify, empirically and conceptually, the inefficiencies and the misdirections of technology. And on this basis, we are hoping to contribute to policy discussions in which policy, institutions, and norms are part of what shapes the future of technology in a more beneficial direction. Last but not least, our mission is not just to do our own research, but to help build an ecosystem in which other, especially younger, researchers are inspired to explore these issues.

Q: What are your next steps?

Simon Johnson: David, Daron, and I plan for this initiative to move beyond producing insightful and groundbreaking research — our aim is to identify innovative pro-worker ideas that policymakers, the private sector, and civil society can use. We will continue to translate research into practice by regularly convening students, scholars, policymakers, and practitioners who are shaping the future of work — to include fortifying and diversifying the pipeline of emerging scholars who produce policy-relevant research around our core themes.

We will also produce a range of resources to bring our work to wider audiences. Last fall, David, Daron, and I wrote the initiative’s inaugural policy memo, entitled “Can we Have Pro-Worker AI? Choosing a path of machines in service of minds.” Our thesis is that, instead of focusing on replacing workers by automating job tasks as quickly as possible, the best path forward is to focus on developing worker-augmenting AI tools that enable less-educated or less-skilled workers to perform more expert tasks — as well as creating work, in the form of new productive tasks, for workers across skill and education levels.

As we move forward, we will also look for opportunities to engage globally with a wide range of scholars working on related issues.

Press Mentions

The Wall Street Journal

Wall Street Journal reporter Justin Lahart spotlights the work of Prof. David Autor, an economist whose “thinking helped change our understanding of the American labor market.” Harvard Prof. Lawrence Katz says Autor has “probably been the most insightful and influential scholar of the labor market” in decades.  “To me, the labor market is the central institution of any society,” says Autor. “The fastest way to improve people’s welfare is to improve the labor market.” 

New York Times

New York Times columnist Thomas Edsall spotlights recent research by Profs. Daron Acemoglu, David Autor and Simon Johnson, in which they explore whether artificial intelligence could be a beneficial tool for workers. “It is quite possible to leverage generative AI as an informational tool that enables various different types of workers to get better at their jobs and perform more complex tasks,” explains Acemoglu. However, he notes “to turn generative AI pro-worker, we need a major course correction.”

Project Syndicate

An essay co-authored by Prof. Simon Johnson in Project Syndicate argues that for all the predictions about AI’s effect on the workforce, the most likely outcome is that many people will face pressure to change jobs as the labor market adjusts. Policymakers must focus on human capital, he writes, and “shared prosperity can flow from new technology, but only if its adoption is accompanied by upgraded human skills and more proactive worker redeployment.”

Project Syndicate

Writing for Project Syndicate, Institute Prof. Daron Acemoglu and Prof. Simon Johnson draw upon the work of economist David Ricardo and his insights on the Industrial Revolution to explore how to respond to the challenge posed by AI to good jobs. “It is still possible to have pro-worker AI, but only if we can change the direction of innovation in the tech industry and introduce new regulations and institutions,” they write.  


Prof. David Autor speaks with Bloomberg’s Odd Lots podcast hosts Joe Weisenthal and Tracy Alloway about how AI could be leveraged to improve inequality, emphasizing the policy choices governments will need to make to ensure the technology is beneficial to humans. “Automation is not the primary source of how innovation improves our lives,” says Autor. “Many of the things we do with new tools is create new capabilities that we didn’t previously have.”

The Washington Post

Washington Post columnist Eduardo Porter spotlights various MIT research efforts aimed at ensuring that AI is used to empower human workers rather than replace them. Prof. David Autor notes: “AI, if used well, can assist with restoring the middle-skill, middle-class heart of the U.S. labor market that has been hollowed out by automation and globalization.”

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