EmTech Next, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

11-12 June, 2019, Cambridge, USA

With two full days of successive TED talks and roundtable debates, the scope of subjects reviewed was indeed broad, ranging from the impact of AI on businesses and advances in human-robot collaboration to leadership “in an era of constant reinvention”, the digital factory, the new landscape of in-company training via AI and virtual reality, and the jobs of the future.
These have been common topics in EmTech Next events of the past years. This time however, the conference also made room, untypically, for some ethical questions. It first explored the “dark side of on-demand work”, a segment in which Mary Gray, a senior researcher for Microsoft, presented the concept of “ghost work” – the title of a book she published on the subject. Ghost work refers to the type of task- or contract-driven work that is available on platforms, especially in data sorting and data cleaning, now tapped into by a growing number of companies with less-than-minimal conditions for workers. This work structure, Gray argued, “undermines everything we know about full-time work.” Another session, titled “An ethical compass in the automation age”, suggested that an ethical framework is needed to shape the future. The speakers, Pramod Khargonekar, professor of electrical engineering and computer science and vice chancellor for research at University of California, Irvine, Meera Sampath, associate vice chancellor for research at State University of New York, Albany, and Susan Winterberg, a fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School, talked about Socially Responsible Automation (RSA), an emerging concept grounded in the idea that cost-focused automation and performance-driven business activity will prove harmful over time not just with respect to human labor but also for companies themselves. RSA thus primarily advocates the kind of automation that frees employees from routine tasks so they have more time to nurture social cohesion. When layoffs are truly inevitable, workers should be assisted by their company in the creation of a new project, whether as an employee elsewhere, a retrainee, or an entrepreneur (e.g. Nokia, when its activity collapsed due to the success of the iPhone). In all cases, the imperative is to always put people at the center – an argument that should convince corporate management since the principle aims to benefit companies as well as workers.
In keeping with this new spirit, most EmTech Next 2019 talks emphasized the need to make robots/computers and people think, work and become more intelligent together, with technology aimed at augmenting people rather than outdoing and replacing them.