MIT Says AI Development Should Help the Workplace, Not Control It

Since technical automations first started scaling across 18th century textile industries, innovations have created jobs.

Typically, the substitution of machines, like 19th century agricultural harvesters or the sewing machine, for human labor results in more jobs being created than jobs replaced: a net positive. 

That’s because technical innovations themselves are features, not bugs, of a healthy, functioning economy where the doors are open to progress and development. 

And now, add to that historical growth pattern the emerging substitution of 21st century innovations like machine learning (ML) and artificial intelligence (AI) within previously manual workflows. 

The generative AI industry is expected to grow to $1.3 trillion by 2032, and is projected at the same time to give back workers and employees huge swathes of their productivity by optimizing legacy processes. 

Still, despite the excitement inherent to today’s advances, the science-fiction-fueled specter of robots stealing jobs and companies turning to fully automated solutions is a hard one to shake, particularly for workers themselves. 

This, as the MIT Schwarzman College of Computing and the MIT Washington Office have published a policy brief with recommendations on the governance of AI titled, “Can We Have Pro-Worker AI? Choosing a path of machines in service of minds.” 

“A better path is available, along which generative AI would be complementary to most humans — augmenting their capabilities — including people without a four-year college degree. … If AI tools can enable teachers, nurse practitioners, nurses, medical technicians, electricians, plumbers, and other modern craft workers to do more expert work, this can reduce inequality, raise productivity, and boost pay by leveling workers up,” wrote researchers within MIT’s Shaping the Future of Work Initiative. 

“Public policy has a central role in encouraging this positive path of technology to complement all workers, elevating the achievable level of skill and expertise for everyone,” the authors of the policy brief added. 

See more: AI Can Predict the Weather, What About Financial Forecasts?

Gen AI in Service of Human Minds

Throughout the history of the modern economy, machines have been developed to perform tasks that have a high degree of predictability and are carried out in stable environments.

To ensure that AI is leveraged in such a way that it creates and supports new jobs and capabilities for workers, the MIT cohort suggested five federal policies they consider to be the most important. 

After all, AI development in the U.S. is taking place absent any binding policies or guardrails. 

First, the policy brief recommends equalizing tax rates on employing workers and on owning equipment/algorithms to level the playing field between people and machines.

Second, it recommends updating Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) rules to create safeguards on the surveillance of worker.

Third, increasing funding for research into human-complementary AI applications.

Fourth, the brief calls for the creation of an AI center of expertise within the government, to help share knowledge among regulators and other officials.

Finally, it recommends using that center of excellence expertise to advise on deploying AI across critical areas like education and healthcare. 

Whether those five recommendations will be implemented is anyone’s guess, but the onward march of AI and the integration of the technology into the day-to-day tasks of most workers is all but a guaranteed certainty. 

As PYMNTS reported, around 40% of executives said there is an urgent necessity to adopt generative AI, and 84% of business leaders believe generative AI’s impact on the workforce will be positive. 

“We are in that economic cycle where every cost you can beat out of the process is necessary right now … how to save money and how to eliminate those manual steps in the processes is top of mind,” Ingo Money CEO Drew Edwards told PYMNTS.

And with generative AI taking off, companies are already realizing labor- and cost-saving applications in every field, from healthcare to finance, according to “Preparing for a Generative AI World,” a PYMNTS Intelligence and AI-ID collaboration.

What’s more, as economist David S. Evans wrote for PYMNTS, we will one day — in the not too distant future — require AI to perform the many jobs for which there will no longer be people available to do, as a result of the global population’s declining fertility and aging demographics. 

Read also: The Demographic Debacle Meets the AI Miracle

AI Making People More Productive

While AI systems have the potential to free up huge swaths of human work hours, their success when it comes to the critical measure of ROI (return on investment) depends on how those regained hours are repurposed.

For example, PYMNTS Intelligence found that 72% of lawyers doubt the legal industry is ready for AI, while just 1 in 5 believe that the advantages of using AI surpass the disadvantages.

At the same time, nearly two-thirds of Americans want an AI copilot to help them do things like book travel — and travel companies are already leaning into the technology’s applications in their industry.

“AI is a tool — but it’s one that everyone should take time to learn and play with in order to explore how they can best take advantage of its capabilities,” Jeremiah Lotz, managing vice president, digital and data at PSCU, told PYMNTS.

Change doesn’t need to happen all at once. PYMNTS reported earlier this month that tailoring AI solutions by industry is key to scalability. For example, more than 3 in 4 (77%) retailers think AI is the emerging technology that will have the biggest impact on their industry, and 92% of retailers are already tapping AI-driven personalization to drive growth. 

As PYMNTS’ Karen Webster wrote at the beginning of the year, AI’s greatest potential is in creating the knowledge base needed to equip the workforce — any worker in any industry — with the tools to deliver a consistent, high-quality level of service, quickly and at scale.

Pair that reality with the future envisioned by Evans, and the impact of AI can’t be overstated. 

After all, progress isn’t automatic, but automation is typically progress.