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The Future of Robots in Business  October 22, 2015 – 02:03 pm
Torian Richardson, Area Vice

Smart machines are everywhere we go. They’re on the plant floor manufacturing our cars, and they are in our grocery stores scanning our purchases. In the case of the iPhone and Siri, they are even in our pockets.

And that means that smart machines and robots will be taking more and more jobs. As Erik Brynjolfsson, Professor of Information Technology at MIT Sloan School of Management said on CBS’ 60 Minutes, “There are lots of examples of routine, middle-skilled jobs that are being eliminated the fastest. Those kinds of jobs are easier for our friends in the artificial intelligence community to design robots to handle them.”

But some of the developments we’ve seen in recent years indicate robots—or smart machines—will be taking not just manual jobs, but also intellectual jobs. Just take a look at Watson, IBM’s computer that played on—and won—Jeopardy! Over the course of the tournament, Watson not only came up with correct answers, but also learned why his incorrect answers are wrong. It improved at a rate faster than any human could.

Today, Watson is being used in healthcare, helping doctors cross-reference symptoms of cancer patients. Watson is also being used in finance to help banks analyze data to improve credit decisions, investment analysis, and risk management. Watson is a proof point that machines can learn and take over some knowledge worker roles.

“Technology is always creating jobs. It’s always destroying jobs. But right now the pace is accelerating. It’s faster, we think, than ever before in history. As a consequence, we are not creating jobs at the same pace we need to, ” Brynjolfsson commented on 60 Minutes.

This new machine age, as Brynjolfsson calls it, is more about knowledge creation, not physical production. This presents an opportunity. “Each innovation presents building blocks for even more innovation, ” commented Brynjolfsson. One prevalent example of this principle is Facebook apps. Facebook apps are built on top of Facebook, which was built on top of the Web, which was built on top of the Internet.

So yes, robots are taking—and will continue to take—more jobs. “Instead of racing against the machine, ” said Brynjolfsson, “we need to race with the machine.” Brynjolfsson points out that this transformation will take more than a century to evolve. And we need to take that time to change our organizations to embrace, and not fight, this new machine age.

Erik Brynjolfsson is Professor of Information Technology and the Schussel Family Professor of Management Science at MIT Sloan. He is Faculty Director for MIT Sloan Executive Education’s Big Data: Making Complex Things Simpler and teaches in the new program, Future of Manufacturing. He is also Director of the MIT Center for Digital Business and co-author of Race Against the Machine


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