Will machines talk us out of jobs?

Economy may not be able to catch up with next impending technology wave, MIT professor warns.

The good news is the digital economy is creating more wealth for less work. The bad news is that it is destroying more jobs at a rate faster than it is creating new ones.

Photo: MIT

That's the view of Erik Brynjolfsson, MIT professor, co-author of Race Against the Machine, and a leading voice on technology-driven productivity, speaking in a recent interview with McKinsey & Company.

In times gone by, Brynjolfsson says, new technologies would wipe out jobs, but in the process, create many more new types of jobs. This time around -- with the IT revolution that started in the 1990s -- the number of jobs being eliminated is far outpacing the number of new jobs being created.

It's not that organizations themselves are suffering, Brynjolfsson adds. Because of IT and automation, "productivity growth is doing pretty well. Productivity levels are at an all-time high, and in the 2000s, productivity growth was faster than it was in the 1990s, which was a great decade." The problem is, he says, median worker incomes and employment rates are dropping across the world.

Brynjolfsson points to a series of innovations -- emerging just within the past few years -- that are changing consumers' and workers' relationships to machines. Interactive, responsive systems, fed by big data, will have major implications for the economy and definitions of work. "I think we’re finally getting at that seminal moment in human history when we can talk to our machines and our machines will understand us in regular, natural language," he points out. While the well-known example of Apple's Siri is a "little clunky," the technology is nevertheless advancing at a rapid pace.

The question is, then, what impact will this new wave of innovation have on employment markets that are not keeping pace with technology? Brynjolfsson didn't explain in the interview what kinds of jobs would be subsumed by these verbose systems. A logical example would be customer-service roles, such as call center representatives, which are already seeing their roles changed by self-service and interactive voice response technologies.  It's worth mentioning that call-center jobs are not being replaced entirely, but rather elevated, to the point in which humans are handling the more complex inquiries or problems, while automated systems handle routine inquiries.

The force that is making intelligent voice systems is big data, he continues, which he sees as the leading technology trend shaping enterprises. "Just by crunching large amounts of data, [voice systems are] able to improve language understanding in a way that we couldn’t when we were trying to hand-code the semantics and syntax of language."

Big data itself may also be a job creator. iCrunchData's newly posted "Big Data Jobs Index" estimates that there are 224,000 analytics jobs, 29,000 business intelligence jobs and 143,000 other "Big Data" jobs at this time in the U.S. alone.

Or perhaps, as David Mayer suggests, there will always be a need to humans to manage services, online or offline. Even the most technologically advanced companies need to have the human element to succeed.

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com