Opinion staff column

The need for a more nuanced understanding of technology

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At a school like MIT, a global leader in technological innovation, students and faculty should work not only to promote technology’s advancement, but also to understand and craft comprehensive solutions to the problems that it creates. One such problem is automation’s ability to displace middle-class laborers by mechanizing their work.

This issue was the topic of a recent op-ed in the Boston Globe by MIT President Rafael Reif. In his article, Reif calls on all of society — economists, policymakers, businesspeople, educators, and students — to come together and find long-term solutions.

There is a strong impetus for members of the MIT community to be part of this solution. As with many other pressing global issues, the issue of job loss created by automation is an interdisciplinary one, and its solutions will be interdisciplinary in nature as well. MIT students are particularly well-situated to help advance these solutions, as the institute not only offers incredible resources in science and technology fields, but also in the social sciences. In fact, in an interview with The Tech, President Reif recalled that at conferences with other political, business, and academic leaders, “[People] basically ask us […] You have the strongest economics department in the country; […] the strongest technologists and scientists; the strongest social scientists […] Why don’t you tell us what it is that we should be doing? How [can we] address this problem?”

Despite this strong impetus, however, very few MIT students are substantively engaging with the idea that the technological work they hope to dedicate their careers to could potentially ruin others’ abilities to work. This could be true for a multitude of reasons. For one, most MIT students are already busy with work within their own disciplines. Additionally, many MIT students regard the humanities and social sciences with disdain and disrespect. Then, for the students who care and desire to get involved, it isn’t always clear how they can do so. However, there are material ways in which MIT students can and should make a difference.

Developing a solution always begins with fully understanding the problem. Currently, there are a multitude of questions on this topic that are open to debate: What jobs will be lost, and what jobs will be created? How quickly will these changes occur? What practices can mitigate the negative effects?

For students, this learning process can take many forms. Students can have casual conversations with their friends or organize formal discussions in a political club. They can take an economics class about the functionings of the labor market, a political science class about social security policies, or an STS class about the ethics of science or historic role of technology in transforming society. They can do UROPs with any of the numerous professors conducting research in these topics — many of whom are scholars at the forefronts of their fields.

One example is Economics Professor David Autor, a leading labor economist whose research on the effects of automation and trade on employment and earnings has been highly influential. In an interview with The Tech, Autor noted that the problem is not with the number of jobs available but rather their quality and their accessibility. He stated that “The challenge is more for less educated adults, who do repetitive tasks; manual labor […] we’re already in a setting where labor force participation and wages are declining for [them].”

One area in which MIT is already developing potential solutions is in education accessibility. High-quality universities like MIT can provide individuals with the education and training necessary to enter work fields that are less susceptible to automation, but there is obviously a limitation to the number of students that such universities can accept. Technology can resolve this issue by expanding access to MIT’s resources beyond its physical campus.

For example, the new MITx MicroMasters program allows individuals to, after taking a set of online courses, apply for an accelerated Master’s degree program at MIT or several other top universities. The program just launched last year, but has already attracted over 180,000 learners, with 1,100 finishing the online course series and 622 qualifying to apply for a full master’s degree. On the MicroMasters program, President Reif noted that “it’s a way to democratize admissions and bring you here once you’ve demonstrated you can do the work.” He also stated that any students who want to voice ideas or get involved in these online initiatives can contact the MIT Office of Digital Learning. Beyond MIT, there are also numerous digital education companies and organizations that students can work for, such that they can advance their own careers in software engineering or the like while contributing to valuable initiatives.

Outside of the digital realm, there are also opportunities for students to help expand access to education. One example is the Educational Studies Program (ESP), through which MIT students can teach middle and high school students in the Cambridge and Boston area. Autor noted that although the US has the best post-secondary education system globally, its K-12 education system is severely lacking and consequently could greatly benefit from increased MIT student involvement.

Another area where students should get involved is the policy world. Policy reforms will prove essential to resolving or mitigating the impacts of the job loss created by automation. For example, social security programs such as a universal basic income (UBI) could become necessary to support individuals who become unemployed. Additionally, increased spending on technical education could help expand access to high quality education. Conversely, Autor noted that the Republican tax plan would do the exact opposite by taxing tuition breaks as income and removing deductions on student loan interests. It’s important to note that all of these potential changes are still highly controversial — Autor himself feels that in-kind transfers are far more effective social safety nets than a UBI, stating that a UBI “decouples income from work, but […] work has all kinds of good properties — work isn’t just about making a sufficient income, but it gives people a purpose in life; an individual identity; a social circle.” This controversy, again, points to the necessity of further research to understand the nuances of the automation issue.

For students who wish to get more closely involved in politics, the MIT Washington Office facilitates interactions between members of the MIT community and entities in DC, including the federal government, think tanks, and NGOs. Its summer internship program gives students the opportunity to play a role in the policy-making process, whether by conducting research at a think tank or working directly on Capitol Hill. President Reif also noted that he and other MIT administrators are hoping to create more programs to facilitate student involvement in politics, and he encouraged students to contact him with any ideas on how the school could expand in this regard.

These conversations, classes, and extracurricular programs that provide exposure to the social aspects of technology are essential in helping students develop more nuanced understandings of technology and its applications. An MIT education can provide students with a wide skill set, but students have great discretion as to how to use those skills. Consequently, students should always maintain critically reflexive perspectives towards technology, and regularly ask themselves whether or not the work that they are doing helps to create their visions of a more prosperous and equitable world. President Reif explained, “I would like for students to take more active ownership on this conversation […] The future is really yours; it’s not mine. So what is the society that you want?”

At a tech-oriented school like MIT, it is imperative that students understand and engage with the negative effects that technology can bring upon society. Technology can be a force for good, but only if we are purposeful with its applications and vigilantly address the problems that it can engender.