‘Humans, Machines and the Future of Work’

10th De Lange Conference examines the impact of information technology on labor markets

What will we do in a world in which machines are making machines? That is one of the many questions experts in technology, economics, social sciences and the humanities sought to explore at the 10th De Lange Conference at Rice Dec. 5-6.

Richard Freeman and Lawrence Mishel offer differing economic perspectives at the De Lange Conference.

Richard Freeman and Lawrence Mishel offer differing economic perspectives at the De Lange Conference.

Aiming to confront a major issue impacting society, the 2016 De Lange Conference on “Humans, Machines and the Future of Work” focused on issues created by the impact of information technology on labor markets over the next 25 years. More than 200 people attended to hear renowned speakers from academia, industry and leading think tanks share their insight.

“We live in a time in which we should be keenly aware of this topic,” President David Leebron said during his welcoming remarks. “With the 2016 U.K. referendum on Brexit, the recent U.S. presidential election and the referendum in Italy last weekend, there is a lot of frustration with the state of our economies and the opportunities they provide.”

The topic of robots — and whether humans should fear or embrace them — was a common discussion point throughout the conference’s presentations and panels.

“Technology has always altered and sometimes threatened human safety and social organization as well as advanced human well-being,” Leebron said. “Every major technological change has shifted the role that humans play.”

De Lange Conference Chair Moshe Vardi, Rice’s Karen Ostrum George Distinguished Service Professor in Computational Engineering and director of the Ken Kennedy Institute for Information Technology, said he hoped the two-day event led to discussion of the future of work from all perspectives and created a push to make it an issue of public policy.

“We must make the future of work an academic topic,” Vardi said. “Where should the issue fall? It doesn’t fall into just one discipline; it spans them all.”

Manuela Veloso, the Herbert A. Simon Professor in Computer Science and Robotics at Carnegie Mellon University, discussed the limitations of robots and the concept of symbiotic autonomy in her presentation, “Robot Autonomy: Symbiotic Interaction and Learning.”

“Robots are expected to complement humans rather than act like humans,” Veloso said. “They are able to do some things better than humans, but humans can do some things better than robots.”

Veloso illustrated her point through video footage of Carnegie Mellon’s CoBot mobile robots, which roam university buildings performing service tasks such as escorting visitors and delivering coffee.

“Humans will need to trust these machines and be transparent or we will have a hard time communicating with them,” she said. “They function in the world of numbers, and we function in the world of language.”

In a presentation titled “Employment and Income in the Age of the Robots,” Richard Freeman, the Hebert Ascherman Chair in Economics at Harvard University, focused on the three laws of robo-nomics: Robots will become increasingly better substitutes for people; technological advances will reduce the cost of robots and force down workers’ wages; and the share of income earned by robots will increase.

“There’s no single cause of our economic problems, but technology does play a significant role,” Freeman said. “It’s hard to imagine a company with amazingly increasing productivity not being a company adopting the most modern technology.”

Offering a differing perspective, Lawrence Mishel, president of the Economic Policy Institute, revealed there are no trends supporting robot-caused inequality in his presentation, “Should We Fear the Robots? Automation, Job Shortages and Rising Inequality.”

“Technological change is perhaps the single largest force shaping the labor market year-in and year-out,” Mishel said. “It had been and it will be. I don’t know about the future, but I can only say that I don’t think the story of how technology is shaping occupational patterns in the last 20 years gives it much purchase on saying it’s responsible for inequality.”

The need for developing policy relevant to the future of work was a recurring theme throughout the conference.

“Economy happens when people need each other,” said David Nordfors, the CEO of the IIIJ Foundation, in a public-policy panel. “When people need each other more, it grows. We want innovation that makes people need and value one another.”

For a list of all the experts who spoke at the conference, visit http://delange.rice.edu/conference_X/interactive_agenda.html.

The biennial De Lange Conference, funded by the De Lange Endowment, was established by C.M. and Demaris Hudspeth in honor of Demaris’ parents, Albert and Demaris De Lange.

About Kendall Schoemann

Kendall Schoemann is a staff writer in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.