Global Citizen Education Network

Technology Can Lift All Boats — An Interview With MIT Professor Thomas Kochan

By Anders Corr, Ph.D.

Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Professor Thomas Kochan spoke to the Global Citizen Education Network today about artificial intelligence (AI), robotics, and the need to involve workers in training and workplace organizational decisions as new technologies arrive at the workplace.

“We are very interested in having people from all over the world to participate in a good discussion of what we need to do to create more opportunities for the next generation of workers, to have good jobs, good careers, and to improve their standard of living for themselves, their families, and their countries and societies,” Professor Kochan told Lan Anh Nguyen of the Global Citizen Education Network.

Professor Kochan is the George Maverick Bunker Professor of Management at MIT’s Sloan Business School, Professor of Work and Employment Research, and Co-Director, MIT Sloan Institute for Work and Employment Research.


He said he looks forward to having students worldwide join his class, free of charge and virtually from any location, on creating companies worldwide that are both profitable and creating career opportunities by organizing work to utilize workers knowledge. He believes in investing in the workforce to improve productivity.

He said that first, companies should invest in the workforce and utilize workforce talent. This includes ongoing education and training of workers at every level in an organization.

Second, Professor Kochan said that we need to empower workers to use their skills to have a voice in how they organize their jobs to take advantage of new technologies like AI and robotics. By coordinating workers and technology, he said that we get higher levels of productivity and service quality.

Third, he said that we need supportive government policies and educational institutions to ensure that workers keep skills current as technologies change. Through cooperation of workers, companies, and government, worker skills will transform to fit the evolving economy, and no worker will be left behind.

Professor Kochan said that the American Dream means that every generation should be able to improve on the standard of living compared to what their parents experienced. There should be regular improvement through the generations. That can only be done through the continual creation of good jobs for new workers. Professor Kochan said that while we want to improve the standard of living in the U.S., we should also improve the standard of living of our global trading partners. It is not a zero-sum game, he said, but one through which workers in all countries can benefit.

He said that the biggest political and economic problems in the U.S. are the large populations that are angry about their lack of benefit from globalization and technology improvements. “We have to work to close those divisions by investing in our different regions in the country to help them rebuild their economies, to build high-quality jobs, to bring new entrepreneurs into those regions so that they too can share in the future of our economy and the future of technology,” he said.

Cooperation between workers, entrepreneurs, companies, educational institutions, and government is the key, according to Professor Kochan, to solving these local and international economic problems. He said that we have a lot of innovation at the local level, including at the company and government level, that needs to be built upon and taken across the country to have a macro-economic impact, not just a local economic impact.

Professor Kochan said that AI is already shaping work in important ways, and that it will be used increasingly in the future. He said that AI should augment good quality jobs and human decision-making, and where it replaces workers, those workers should have alternative educational opportunities that lead to further technical and economic progress.

He gave the example of AI in healthcare giving doctors and other health workers better diagnostic and treatment information that supports their work. It supports the health workers, rather than replacing them. He also gave the example of his own boyhood experience on a dairy farm. When technical progress freed workers like himself from direct contact with the dairy cows, he was able to study and teach at university.

Professor Kochan cited a Japanese saying, “People give wisdom to the machines.” Professor Kochan said that AI can make work safer and tap the creative talents of the workforce, and it can free the workforce to become educated and do new forms of work.
Professor Kochan said that technology developments should benefit people globally. AI and robotics in the developed countries, for example, are being re-engineered by MIT for conditions in developing countries by making the technology simpler, more robust, and less expensive. In this way, technical gains in developed countries can be shared with developing countries. Technology can lift all boats, if we enable it to do so through cooperation between workers, business, and government.