Getting Automation Right

It’s up to us to make sure our automated future works for everyone.

In 1980, when he became MIT’s 14th president, the late Paul Gray presented the MIT community with a challenge. “We continue to hear the complaint that … many of our human and social ills are the direct result of unanticipated and deleterious artifacts of technology, foisted upon the world by technicians with tunnel vision,” he observed, as he urged the people of MIT to “rededicate science and technology as socially powerful activities.”

I believe Paul’s challenge has a deep new importance for us now, as we contemplate the long-term impact of automation on human labor.
Every past technology wave ultimately produced more jobs than it destroyed, while delivering important gains—from higher living standards and longer life expectancy to increased productivity and economic growth. Yet many fear that this time the change may be so fast and so vast, its impact so uneven and disruptive, that it may threaten not only individual livelihoods but the stability of society itself.

Fortunately, this outcome is not inevitable—and the future is in our hands. Automation will transform our work, our lives, our society. Whether the outcome is inclusive or exclusive, fair or laissez-faire, is up to us. Getting this right is among the most important and inspiring challenges of our time—and it should be a priority for everyone who hopes to enjoy the benefits of a nation that’s healthy and stable because it offers opportunity for all.

In this work, those of us leading and benefiting from the technology revolution must take the initiative. This is not someone else’s problem; it is a call to action. Technologies embody the values of those who make them. It is up to those of us advancing new technologies to help make certain that they do not wind up damaging the society we intend them to serve.
It is no exaggeration to say that MIT researchers are leading the way in defining the current problem and forecasting the challenges ahead. As we expand our focus to developing solutions, we are urgently seeking allies, from across our society, who want to join in building a future in which technology works for everyone.