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Opinion

How to survive in a tech-driven economy

Technological innovation has made the US economy more productive, but this new economy creates fewer jobs, and wages are suffering. Preparing workers for an era when productivity and employment are no longer linked will be the grand challenge of the next generation.

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Second, technologies are going to continue to become more powerful and capable, and to acquire more advanced skills and abilities. They can already drive cars in traffic, understand and produce natural human speech, write clean prose, and beat the best human Jeopardy! players. Just a few years ago, most experts would have labeled these “non-routine tasks” – the kind that computers were supposed to be no good at.

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Digital progress has surprised a lot of people recently, and we ain’t seen nothing yet. Brawny computers, brainy programmers, and big data are a potent combination, and they’re nowhere near finished. The labor-force implications of their work are nicely summarized by venture capitalist Marc Andreessen, who says that, “The spread of computers and the Internet will put jobs in two categories: People who tell computers what to do, and people who are told by computers what to do.” Only one of these two job categories will be well paid.

The Great Decoupling is not going to reverse course, for the simple reason that advances in digital technologies are not about to stop. In fact, we’re convinced that they are accelerating. And our strong conviction is that this should be great news for our society and our lives. Digital progress lowers prices, improves quality, expands choice, and brings us into a world where abundance, rather than scarcity, becomes more often the norm.

But there is no economic law that digital progress will benefit everyone evenly. As technology races ahead it can leave a lot of workers behind. In the short run we can improve their prospects greatly by investing in infrastructure, reforming education at all levels, and encouraging entrepreneurs to invent the new products, services, and industries that will create new jobs.

While we’re doing this, however, we also need to start preparing for a technology-fueled economy that’s ever more productive, but that just might not need a great deal of human labor. Designing a healthy society to go along with such an economy will be the grand challenge, and the great opportunity, of the next generation. We have to acknowledge that the old ride of tightly coupled statistics has ended, and start thinking about what we want the new ride to look like.

Erik Brynjolfsson is professor at the MIT Sloan School of Management and director of the MIT Center for Digital Business. Andrew McAfee is principal research scientist at MIT and associate director of the Center. They are co-authors of “Race Against the Machine.”

© 2012 Global Viewpoint Network/Tribune Media Services. Hosted online by The Christian Science Monitor.

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