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Technology for All

Technological change does not follow its own direction, but rather is shaped by moral frames, incentives, and power. If we think more about how innovation can be directed to serve society, we can afford to worry less about how we should adjust to it.

CAMBRIDGE – We live in a world with an ever-widening chasm between the skills of the “average” worker and the capabilities demanded by frontier technologies. Robots, software, and artificial intelligence have increased corporate profits and raised demand for skilled professionals. But they replace factory, sales, and clerical workers – hollowing out the traditional middle class. This “skills gap” contributes to deepening economic inequality and insecurity and ultimately to political polarization – the signal problems of our time.

The conventional response is more and better education. If ordinary people are not to be left behind in this age-old “race between education and technology,” to use the evocative phrase of Harvard economists Claudia Goldin and Lawrence Katz, societies need to do a much better job in training and retraining their workforce for new technologies. Truck drivers need to become computer programmers.

This is an oddly one-sided remedy. As a matter of logic, the gap between skills and technology can be closed in one of two ways: either by increasing education to match the demands of new technologies, or by redirecting innovation to match the skills of the current (and prospective) labor force. The second strategy barely gets lip service in policy discussions. Yet it is the more obvious, and possibly more effective strategy. As my Harvard colleague Ricardo Hausmann points out, we need to create jobs for the workers we have, not the workers we wish we had.

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