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How are improvements in digital technology changing the nature of human work?
A team of researchers from the MIT Sloan School of Management and the Masdar Institute in Masdar City, Abu Dhabi, have taken a close look at that question. In a paper called “Racing With and Against the Machine: Changes in Occupational Skill Composition in an Era of Rapid Technological Advance,” Frank MacCrory, George Westerman and Erik Brynjolfsson of the MIT Sloan School and Yousef Alhammadi of the Masdar Institute studied the U.S. government’s O*NET database of occupational skill requirements in 2006 and 2014 and analyzed the types of skills that jobs required in both years. Their paper was named the best conference paper at the 2014 International Conference on Information Systems.
The researchers found that there were significant changes in skill requirements over the 2006-2014 time period. For example, as machines’ capabilities have increased in areas such as visual perception and voice perception — think Google Inc.’s self-driving car project or Apple Inc.’s Siri — jobs in the U.S. have started requiring those skills less. And as computers take over more routine work, jobs involve less supervision of people (since more and more people are, in effect, supervising machines rather than humans). For instance, the researchers note that in the past, an architect might have supervised draftsmen; today’s architects instead work with CAD software.
By contrast, some job skills have grown in importance — in particular, the ability to work with equipment such as computers. Demand also grew for skills in some areas in which machines haven’t made many inroads. The average occupation in the U.S. in 2014 more heavily emphasized interpersonal skills — an area where computers can’t yet compete with humans — than a comparable job in 2006.
Even more important than the specific changes in job skills, however, is what the changes augur for the future. The authors advise that, given the extremely rapid progress taking place in digital technologies, people in all lines of work should strive to be flexible about acquiring new skills and even about changing their occupations.
“For any given skill one can think of, some computer scientist may already be trying to develop an algorithm to do it,” write MacCrory, Westerman, Alhammadi and Brynjolfsson. As a result, the authors conclude, people, “especially those with many years left in their careers — need to stay flexible in focusing on new skills or finding occupations with new complementarities” to what machines can do. That will likely be valuable career advice in coming years — as the researchers expect that the next decade will see even greater advances in digital technologies than the last 10 years brought.
— Martha E. Mangelsdorf