In 2018, MIT assembled its Task Force on the Work of the Future, which concluded in a study released in 2020 that while new technologies will not inevitably eradicate work in large numbers, wise practices, and laws would be required for automation to complement decent jobs. The Work of the Future Initiative, co-directed by Julie Shah, H.N. Slater Professor of Aeronautics and Astronautics at MIT, and Ben Armstrong, executive director, and research scientist at MIT’s Industrial Performance Center, continues the task force’s work today.
The Work of the Future Initiative conducts research on-site at industrial companies and fosters collaboration on campus. In a recent essay for Harvard Business Review, Shah and Armstrong detailed their vision of “positive-sum automation” in manufacturing, in which robots and automation coexist with worker-driven input rather than eliminate employees. They discussed their views with the MIT News.
Let’s begin with your viewpoint on how technologies and workers might complement one another.
What is “positive-sum automation,” the Work of the Future Initiative’s central concept?
Ben Armstrong: One thing Julie and I discovered from visiting factories and researching manufacturers, and Julie noted from her work building robotics technology, is the tradeoff between productivity gains, which are frequently the objective of automation, and adaptability. As companies increase the productivity of repetitive operations, they frequently lose flexibility. Even on the level of ergonomics, modifying industrial processes or making adaptations for workers becomes more expensive. Briefly, “zero-sum automation” is a compromise, whereas “positive-sum automation” is the use of a new technological design and approach to achieve both productivity and flexibility.
This is vital not just for company success, but also for employees. Many companies that deploy robots actually recruit more employees. It is uncertain if these occupations will improve. Hence, boosting flexibility as part of the automation process can be advantageous for workers, as it can result in more worker input.
Julie Shah: I design AI-enabled robots and have spent most of my career in manufacturing, working against the paradigm of choosing between a person or a robot to perform a task, which is by definition zero-sum. It needs a concerted effort to shape technology into adaptable, productivity-enhancing systems.
How frequently do businesses fail to see that automation can result in such a tradeoff?
Shah: The error is practically universal. Yet, as part of our research, we discovered that companies who successfully accept and scale the usage of robots have a totally different mentality. The conventional view of labor displacement is that if I install this robot, I must remove this worker. A worker supervising many robots at a factory told us, “Since my job has gotten simpler, I can now timeshare between multiple machines, and instead of being insanely busy, I can spend 20% of my time thinking about how to enhance everything.” The factory’s learning curve is driven by people and their capacity for innovation.
Armstrong: It might be difficult to quantify the influence of a technology prior to its implementation. You are unaware of any potential hidden costs or advantages. The downstream effect of employees devoting more time to innovative problem-solving In the healthcare industry, for example, the automation of administrative tasks may be met with resistance. However, in our interviews, workers remarked that they could now focus on the most interesting aspects of their jobs, so we see this as a positive outcome for both workers and continuous improvement at these companies.
The focus of the [Harvard Business Review] article was on hardware advancements, but businesses may be quite innovative in how they connect the software used to market their product to the software that operates their equipment. I’m also interested in logistics and warehousing, which in some ways has seen significantly more advancements in robots and automation, and where there’s a tremendous deal of opportunity to enhance people’s job quality.
What does the Work of the Future Initiative consist of in its current form?
Shah: The Work of the Future Initiative has what we refer to as a “automation clinic,” in which we send academics and students to industrial enterprises to see how companies might escape their zero-sum decisions and to highlight their successes. But, the project is far larger than that. There are seed research initiatives and various ways the Institute engages academics and research.
Armstrong: We’re constructing a public repository of case studies, and we’re constantly on the lookout for new locations to visit and industry partners to learn from. And we are seeking for more formal campus discussion opportunities. The Work of the Future Project is not a closed community, and we would want to reach out to MIT students and faculty. It is both thrilling and demanding to have robotics lab administrators collaborate with social scientists. It occurs at MIT, but it may not occur elsewhere. We’re attempting to encourage more cooperation amongst individuals with divergent perspectives on the same problems.
Shah: When the Work of the Future task force was established in 2018, billboards on Interstate 90 advised people to retire immediately [because to robots]. Yet, the actual situation is far more convoluted. When you implement these technologies, there are a multitude of potential futures. Inquiring into the organizational decisions that result in favorable results for enterprises and employees is a substantial and long-term study objective. This is what we’re striving towards, and I believe it’s highly motivating for the engineers performing the job, as it requires wide participation.