Artificial intelligence summit adresses impact of technology on jobs and global economy

Speakers at the summit included Massachusetts Secretary of Labor Rosalin Acosta and former Google chairman Eric Schmidt.

This week MIT hosted its second annual summit on “AI and the Future of Work,” bringing together representatives from industry, government and academia to discuss the opportunities and challenges of artificial intelligence (AI) and automation.

Co-hosted by MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) and the Initiative on the Digital Economy (IDE), the event featured former Alphabet chairman Eric Schmidt and Massachusetts Secretary of Labor Rosalin Acosta, who delivered the keynote address.

A common theme throughout the event was the importance of doing more than just thinking about technological disruption and actually working to create public policy that encourages the thoughtful deployment of AI systems.

“The technologies themselves are neutral, so the question is how to organize ourselves in society in a way that addresses their potential to change the job market,” said Diana Farrell, CEO of the JPMorgan Chase Institute. “We’re kidding ourselves if we think that the market is going to, on its own, allow these technologies to infiltrate and yield the kind of outcomes from society that we want.”

The focus on public policy also extended to education. Many panelists spoke of the importance of lifelong learning, in the form of a burgeoning industry of free and low-cost online classes to pick up skills in fields like machine learning and data science that have seen major job growth.

Some speakers believed that future focus needs to happen much earlier the educational pipeline. Fred Goff, who serves as CEO of the blue-collar job-search network Jobcase, did a survey of the platform’s 90 million members about their education. Half said that their K-12 background prepared them for their job today, but less than a quarter said that they think their education will prepare them for the jobs of tomorrow.

Beyond the U.S., industry analysts spoke about the importance of considering AI in the context of the developing world, where there is often low digital literacy.

“How do we support people in remote and isolated areas so that they don’t fall further behind?” asked Tina George, an expert in global technologies for the World Bank. “We can't build Star Wars with Flintstone technology.”

There was also a growing recognition that in industry, AI could actually become something of an equalizer, especially in areas like mergers and acquisitions that rely heavily on data analysis.

"It no longer requires a multi-million dollar budget to get AI going in your company," said Nichole Jordan, a managing partner at Grant Thornton LLP. “It represents an opportunity to level the playing field for smaller companies.”

On the academic side, CSAIL Director Professor Daniela Rus discussed the many ways that scientists are using AI for everything from diagnosing disease to predicting food shortages. At the same time, she talked about how important it is for researchers to be thoughtful and intentional as they work on these new breakthroughs.

“AI should be able to help us all get lifted to better lives, and I think there is a lot of potential still untapped,” Rus said in video remarks. “But we can't just push technology forward and hope for the best. We have to work to ensure that the best happens.”

A bottom-up view of the state

Embedded with street-level bureaucrats, political theorist Bernardo Zacka reveals the complex moral landscape civil servants must navigate.

An endless wait in a crowded room. The official's impassive expression while handling a client in need.

Exasperating and sometimes infuriating public service bureaucracies are things with which Bernardo Zacka '05, a newly-appointed assistant professor of political science, is well acquainted.

"These are episodes where you feel powerless, where the authority you're dealing with doesn't appear to be a person," he says. "One's impression is dealing with the rule of nobody. But even then of course, you are still dealing with someone."

What is it like to be that person, on the other side of the counter? And what are the moral and political challenges that one encounters when performing such a role?

To find out, Zacka chose to immerse himself in the world of bureaucrats. For his doctoral research exploring the everyday moral lives of workers at an antipoverty agency, Zacka did not just observe and report. He joined as a participant, working as a receptionist at the agency over a period of eight months.

"This was an unusual step, a bit of a methodological oddity for a political theorist," Zacka admits.

His ethnographic approach to the subject, as well as an analysis that ranged across the fields of political philosophy, sociology, and anthropology, resulted in an award-winning thesis for Harvard University's Department of Government. From his doctoral work, he also fashioned a book: “When the State Meets the Street: Public Service and Moral Agency,” which was published in 2017 by Harvard University Press and received the 2018 Charles Taylor Book Award from the American Political Science Association.

Zacka's research sought to reveal how the state interacts with its citizens — not on a theoretical basis, but at the most prosaic, everyday level, where representatives of a state institution deal with clients whose needs are real and pressing.

"I wanted to understand not just how the organization functions, but how the employees went about being responsible, sensible moral agents, performing the roles they were entrusted with," he says.

To accomplish this, Zacka detailed encounters between his colleagues at a quasi-public agency in a northeastern U.S. city and clients seeking help with such services as housing, heating, food, and health care. He witnessed workers trying to meet the needs of clients in situations where government funds were short, or programs curtailed.

"These workers, who are often vilified, act in conditions where it is difficult to do the right thing, or to even figure out what that is, either because resources are limited, or because of conflicting demands placed on them," he says. 

Front-line bureaucrats, Zacka continues, "often start out with good intentions — caring for clients, but caring so much they can't contend with the inevitable failures.” The effort of sustaining a public service ethos results either in burnout or in coping strategies that simplify the moral landscape, but that are troubling in their own right.

While some critics of public service bureaucracies zero in on waste and fixate on managerial solutions, Zacka points instead to the moral complexities faced by frontline workers, stuck in untenable situations with little institutional support.

Zacka's interest in the nitty gritty ways a state interacts with its citizens dates back to Lebanon's civil war, which in the 1980s shattered civil life in that nation and led to displacement for his family and many others. While he does not remember the war itself, living in its aftermath "generated all sorts of puzzles," he says. One example: "What makes for a stable society, and how does one evaluate the comparative advantages of political systems?"

He read voraciously about history and politics and excelled at math and sciences. At a career orientation in high school, he learned about MIT and its research opportunities for undergraduates. Excited by this prospect, he applied and pursued a major in electrical engineering and computer science, with a special concentration in artificial intelligence.

But Zacka's perspective shifted after taking humanities classes such as 17.01 (Justice). "I came to think that maybe I was more curious about how power operates, how we justify our actions to one another, than continuing in AI," he says.

A two-year stint consulting with McKinsey & Company after graduation gave him an understanding of the workings of organizations.

"I learned how incentives are set, and rules decided on," he says. "I became interested in organizational theory, which proved a useful angle to bring to the study of the state."

Eager to return to his long-standing preoccupation with political institutions, he entered graduate school at Harvard. There he found that most of his readings about the rule of law and the structure of democracies operated at a level of abstraction quite distant from our ordinary experiences of political institutions.

"Interactions like crossing a checkpoint, or meeting a border agent were missing from the books I read, and I was puzzled by that," he says. "So I asked a simple question: What would happen if we paid closer attention to the phenomenology of everyday encounters with the state?"

Today, as the sole political theorist in the Department of Political Science, Zacka continues to explore this question, staking out a novel place for himself in the field with his bottom-up, interdisciplinary research methodology. His next book project, involving the architecture of welfare agencies, uses photographs, films, and novels to look at how physical environments mediate interactions with the state.

MIT undergraduates might get a taste of his approach. He is now teaching 17.01, the course that helped set him on his current path.

"I'm applying my own twist, broadening the materials students are exposed to, introducing different traditions of political thought," he says. "There aren't too many people at MIT who specialize in teaching moral and political theory, and it's a privilege to help shape these areas at the Institute."

Bridge to the future of engineering

The School of Engineering’s faculty leadership weigh in on what the MIT Stephen A. Schwarzman College of Computing will mean for their students and faculty.

School of Engineering faculty are embracing the new MIT Stephen A. Schwarzman College of Computing as a bold response to the rapid evolution of computing that is altering and, in many cases, fundamentally transforming their disciplines.

Inspired by student interest in computing, MIT President L. Rafael Reif launched an assessment process more than a year ago that involved widespread engagement with key stakeholders across the MIT community. Discussions were led by President Reif, Provost Martin A. Schmidt, and Dean of the School of Engineering Anantha P. Chandrakasan with Faculty Chair Susan Silbey playing a key role.

“The creation of the college is MIT’s first major academic structural change since 1950,” says Chandrakasan, the Vannevar Bush Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science. “After consulting with faculty from across engineering and throughout MIT, the need to do something timely and deeply impactful was abundantly clear. Mr. Schwarzman’s inspired and amazingly generous support was instrumental to our ability to move forward.”

The school’s eight department heads and two institute directors recently spoke of the exciting possibilities ahead as the college, which represents a $1 billion commitment, gets underway. There will be a new building, a new dean, and 50 new faculty positions located within the college and jointly with other departments across MIT.

School leadership says the college meets a significant need partly because it directly aligns with recent activities and changes in some of their own practices. For example, many departments have adapted their hiring and recruitment practices to include a heavier emphasis on selecting faculty who can work at a high level in computation along with another specialized field, says Chandrakasan. “In some ways the change has arrived,” he says. “The college is our way of building a powerful framework and environment for research and collaborations that involve computing and that are occurring across disciplines. The college remains a young idea and its vibrancy and success will depend on thoughtful input from people across MIT, which I look forward to hearing.”

At the forefront

The eye of the storm of change has undoubtedly been in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science (EECS). Faculty do research to advance core computing topics while also addressing an inundation of requests to build bridges and connect their work with other disciplines. In the last two years alone, EECS faculty have established new joint academic programs with economics and urban science and planning.

The creation of the college will provide vital support and accelerate all kinds of computing-related research and learning that is happening across the Institute, says Asu Ozdaglar, School of Engineering Distinguished Professor of Engineering and EECS department head. “With the launch of the college, we hope that MIT’s leading position in research and the education of future leaders in computing will continue and grow.”

Markus Buehler, head of the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering and the McAfee Professor of Engineering, agrees. “We have been at the forefront of this transformation of our discipline,” he says. The increased role of computing has impacted all five of CEE’s strategic focus areas, which include ecological systems, resources, structures and design, urban systems, and global systems. As a result, the department is now planning a potential new major between CEE and computer science, and the college will help in that effort, says Buehler. “The creation of the college will serve as a key enabler,” he says.

The MIT Institute for Data, Systems, and Society is also deeply aligned with the college, says Munther Dahleh, director of IDSS and the William A. Coolidge Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science. IDSS works with all five schools to promote cross-cutting education and research to advance data science and information and decision systems in order to address societal challenges in a systematic and rigorous manner. IDSS plays a “bridge” role that will prove useful to the college, Dahleh says. It has launched cross-disciplinary academic programs, hired joint faculty in three schools, and enabled collaborations across all five schools.

“The new college will provide a structure for expanding these activities, he says. “And it will create new opportunities to connect with a larger community in sciences, social science, and urban planning and architecture.”

Steeped in computing

The timing is right for the college, say the faculty. “We are excited by the growth opportunities in computing because the nuclear science and engineering disciplines are so steeped in the development and application of numerical tools,” says Dennis Whyte, the Hitachi America Professor of Engineering and head of the Department of Nuclear Science and Engineering.

The Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics has a significant number of faculty working in information engineering for aerospace systems, particularly autonomous systems, says Daniel Hastings, the Cecil and Ida Green Education Professor at MIT and incoming head of the department.

“The college will allow us to expand our research and teaching into all the ways that computing technologies are changing the aerospace enterprise,” says Hastings. Those ways include deep learning to recognize patterns for maintenance in the operation of multiple aircraft, artificial intelligence for traffic control of fleets of uninhabited flying vehicles, and intelligent robotic systems in space to service low-Earth orbit satellites, among others.

Increasingly, the tools of machine learning and artificial intelligence are being fruitfully applied to materials design problems, says Christopher A. Schuh, the Danae and Vasilis Salapatas Professor of Metallurgy and head of the Department of Materials Science and Engineering (DMSE). “Our department sees computational thinking as a critical skill set for any budding materials scientist,” he says, adding a large fraction of DMSE faculty focus on computational materials science or use computational methods in designing new materials.

“We are excited to see MIT focusing on computing broadly, and we look forward to a deep materials-centric engagement with the college,” he says.

Growth opportunities

Paula Hammond, the David H. Koch Professor in Engineering and head of the Department of Chemical Engineering, would like to see the college provide new opportunities and pathways for chemical engineering to grow. One-third of faculty in her department work with computation as their primary research method, she says.

Hammond looks forward especially to the arrival of new faculty. “I see these new positions as a chance to hire faculty members who are rooted in the molecular and systems-oriented thinking that defines our field, while doing research in new and important areas, including global problems in environment, energy, health, and water.” She says such interdisciplinary faculty would be instrumental in building a new computational major in chemical engineering (10-ENG) that is currently in development.

Douglas Lauffenburger, the Ford Professor of Bioengineering and head of MIT’s Department of Biological Engineering, expresses a similar hope. “The creation of the college is a bold step, and I'm hopeful that some of these additional faculty positions will enable a strengthening of computational biology on campus.”

Training the next generation

Faculty also spoke of how the college will enable MIT students to play leadership roles in the future of computing — and other engineering fields. “It will strengthen our ability to train the next generation of mechanical engineers and better prepare students to join the workforce by exposing them to computation and AI throughout their education,” says Evelyn N. Wang, the Gail E. Kendall Professor and head of the Department of Mechanical Engineering.

An increasing number of research fields within mechanical engineering rely on computing technologies — from smarter autonomous machines to more accurate extreme event prediction and -3D printing. “The college will help students and researchers working in these fields advance their groundbreaking research even further,” adds Wang.

Elazer Edelman, the director of the Institute for Medical Engineering and Science, says the potential is vast. “From access to critical data sets to insights derived from machine and deep learning, the college will enable all of us to better interact as a community to address important problems and to train the next batch of young stars at the interface of science, engineering, computing and medicine,” he says. Edelman is the Edward J. Poitras Professor of Medical Engineering and Science at MIT.

“We at IMES are particularly excited to work with the college in interacting as a global community of scholars from this incredibly exciting and imaginative platform,” he says.

The many interfaces of computing

A roundup of MIT student research projects offers a glimpse of where computing is going next.

The new MIT Stephen A. Schwarzman College of Computing will incorporate the modern tools of computing into disciplines across the Institute. “The college will equip students to be as fluent in computing and AI [artificial intelligence] as they are in their own disciplines — and ready to use these digital tools wisely and humanely to help make a better world," says MIT President Rafael Reif.

As often happens, it appears MIT students are already there. We recently spoke with six undergraduate students who are participating in the Advanced Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program (SuperUROP), and found them already thinking deeply about how new computational technologies can be put to use in fields outside of computer science. These students are working on a huge range of problems that share a common theme: Solving them will provide tangible benefits to society.

Haripriya Mehta is working to augment human creativity by using machine learning algorithms to provide potential storylines and helpful drawings for blocked artists. Upon arrival at MIT, Mehta knew she wanted to focus on assistive technology to help people. She was originally interested in prosthetics but soon realized there are more ways than one to assist people.

“I’ve always been a raconteur of sorts, whether it's writing or dancing or playing the piano, and the idea of creative blocks has always interested me,” says Mehta, a third-year student in electrical engineering and computer science. “I want to explore how we can use deep learning to assist artists when we are sort of lost. It would be almost as if you're having a conversation with another artist but instead of an artist, it's a neural net.”

Mehta described widespread application of such a machine learning model: storyboarding for artists; a creative task for elderly to stave off early onset Alzheimer’s; an early childhood education tool to help children form sentences, create stories, and draw.

Senior Christabel Jemutai Sitienei is seeking to drive financial inclusion in East Africa through artificial intelligence. Growing up she witnessed the mobile money industry spread across Kenya and fuel economic growth. More than 75 percent of adults in Kenya were able to open a bank account because of it. Now Sitienei wants to help Kenyans gain access to additional financial services and heightened business acumen.

“Born and bred in Kenya, and with my exposure to AI, I’m in a unique and privileged position to understand the problem,” she says. “I would like to design an app that informs decision making and saves money. It would change how people are building infrastructure and deploying resources.”

Sitienei came to MIT intent on studying mechanical or systems engineering. All that changed in her sophomore year when she developed a mobile app to help her parents in Kenya run their farm.

“When I started using my computing knowledge to solve my own problems, I just knew this was for me,” says Sitienei, who adopted electrical engineering and computer science (EECS) as a major. “The application I built for my parents has been so valuable to them even until now. I learned that I really like solving problems that I can relate to,” she says.

Gabe Margolis is developing machine learning methods for fast and accurate prediction of seafloor feature maps based on sparse data collected by autonomous underwater vehicles.

A third-year student in aeronautics and astronautics, Margolis knew from the outset he wanted to focus on cognitive robotics at MIT. He soon realized that EECS was not his only option. “It seems like the major that best represents my interests would be computer science — but there's actually a big application of artificial intelligence and autonomous systems in aerospace too,” he says.

“I realized the artificial intelligence aspects of aerospace engineering are really about exploring the unknown and that is something I think is really cool,” says Margolis.

Mathematics major Andy Wei is tackling machine learning and security. Wei, a fourth-year student, is combining his math and computer science skills to address things like data poisoning, which occurs when attackers inject a small amount of adversarial training data to compromise a neural network.

“If we're deploying neural networks, we better have a good understanding of how they are vulnerable to adversarial examples,” he says, describing the risks posed by inputs that are misclassified by the network but indistinguishable from natural data to the human eye.

“If people can somehow toy with the system and make some tweaks and the machine fails, that’s an important security issue to understand. I’m really excited to tackle the problem.”

And Mattie Wasiak is applying data analytics to health care. She is leveraging clinical data sets to optimize oxygen delivery to newborns. “I am excited to continue pursuing health care applications,” says Wasiak, a third-year student in electrical engineering and computer science.

“Since freshman year, I've been really interested in machine learning. I’ve been trying to determine what field exactly I want to apply it to,” she says.

Wasiak explored marketing and political science before landing on health care last semester. “I just felt like health care really resonated with me because you can see how a machine learning model that you produce can be used in the field and have an impact on people.”

For more information — and lots of other remarkable examples — visit the SuperUROP website.

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