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Thinking Ahead

| September 5, 2017

by Jim Bruce

Requires that you continue learning

Last spring I spoke at my undergraduate college, Lamar University in Beaumont, Texas, at their 2017 Undergraduate Research EXPO.  As I reflected on the Tuesday Reading to begin the 2017-2018 Academic Year, it occurred to me that a version of my remarks there, which ultimately focused on continuing to learn, was an appropriate way to begin the year.

Computing and information technology are ingrained, someway, in almost everything we do.  When I graduated from Lamar in 1958, there was no computer on the campus.  The first one was installed that summer.  In the fall, when I arrived at MIT as a graduate student, I found MIT was in the process of installing its first computer that would be available to all of the university’s faculty and students.  Computing resources were very scarce.

Today, I dare say, everyone has a smartphone.  In addition, that smartphone has more computing power and memory than all the computers in the United States, and likely the world, had in 1958.  You see your smartphone as essential to doing your work and leading your life.  It impacts essentially everything you do.  How, really did we function before there were smart handheld devices?  And, they’ve only been around for about two decades?  Not very many of us would go anywhere today without our smartphone.

However, unless you are doing drugs, your smartphone, as essential and useful as it is, is also the most addictive thing you have.  As an example of that addiction, I’d guess that most of you have checked your phone for a message or a notification within the last 10-15 minutes, or even in the last 5.  And, quite possibly, if you were not notified of an event, you became anxious and checked any way.  Research indicates that you likely check your smart phone more than 150 times each day!  Many of the apps you use are designed to promote this behavior. 

This is an important fact about your life.  You always have a high-functioning handheld device available to you.  In contrast, I grew up in an environment without a telephone.

A second important data point in the changes we see in technologies that will impact everyone is the self-driving car.  Three years ago in 2014, two MIT Sloan School of Management faculty members published a book, “The Second Machine Age.”  In that book’s first chapter, the authors note that two years earlier, they rode in a Google driverless car on the California 101 freeway.  Yet, only a few years before then, they were convinced that computers would never be able to drive cars.  Recently, Time magazine reported “Silicon Valley firms like Uber and Google, as well as automakers like GM and Ford, view driverless cars as the next holy grail in transportation – and a potentially very lucrative market.  Already self-driving cars are picking up passengers in Pittsburgh and Arizona, driverless trucks have made deliveries in Colorado, and London is about to deploy autonomous busses.”

What changes will this new world make in our individual lives?  Fewer cars?  Less land devoted to parking spaces?  Fewer jobs for taxi, truck, and limo drivers?  There are perhaps 4 million individuals employed in these jobs today.  A life style where you don’t own a car, you just summon one when you need it, paying for a service instead of buying a product that you need to maintain? 

But, don’t stop there.  My Sloan colleagues would also insist that not only is change occurring but that the rate of change is increasing rapidly as well.  Many argue that we are in the middle of another “industrial revolution,” a technology driven revolution, one that will make changes to our society at least as far reaching as those of the industrial revolution of the 18th and 19th centuries, just more rapidly

One of the most important aspects of any “industrial revolution” is that the nature of work changes and can change radically.  In the industrial revolution of the 18th and 19th centuries the economy changed, from one based on agriculture to one based on manufacturing.  The rate of change was slow enough for new generations of workers to transition to new jobs in the new industries.  (Lawrence Katz, an economist at Harvard, has published research showing that large investments in secondary education in the early 1900s helped our nation make this transition.)

Joel Mokyr, a leading economic historian at Northwestern University, has spent his career studying how people and societies have experienced the radical transitions spurred by advances in technology, such as the industrial revolution that began in the late 18th century.   He recently wrote:   “It is nothing like what we have seen in the past, and the issue is whether the system can adapt as it did in the past.”

So, what does all of this have to do with you and me?  It appears that we are in the beginnings of a rapid “revolution” which will move many of us to perhaps new work done differently.  Information technology and artificial intelligence seem to be the core drivers of this revolution.

Today, the big thing is artificial intelligence that focuses on recognizing complex patterns in large data sets and making sense of the data to reach conclusions.  For example, Forbes is using an AI system from Narrative Science to automate its coverage of basic financial stories.  IBM and others including researchers at MIT are using AI to analyze health records and propose treatment pathways for medical doctors to consider.  Other researchers are working on facial recognition, on using AI in creating apps for our smart devices, and on major systems such as ERPs. 

However, today these AI systems still lack the common sense of a child or the native language skills of a two-year old.  But, perhaps not for very long.

When I became CIO at MIT in 1983, the university had large data centers, numerous staff to care for the machines, a large contingent of developers, and staff to support the clients who used these systems.  Today, over three decades later, much of the computation and storage is in the cloud.  A lot of what was routine work of that day – hanging tapes on tape drives for storage, comes to mind as an example – is gone.  The time to bring an existing machine into the campus computing environment has gone from days (weeks if you needed to acquire the machine) to minutes to run a script to configure an equivalent resource in the cloud.

So, back to the question I asked earlier:  What might this mean for you?  I believe that it means that in order to be able to work and be effective in your life, you must actively continue to learn.  The rate of change of just about everything is such that the only way you can keep up or get ahead is through life-long continuous learning.  And, I believe this is true in almost every discipline.  In fact, some argue that the useful half-life of everything you’ve already learned is certainly less than a decade, and perhaps in some disciplines less than half that.

This is not new.  The “new” is that the pace of everything is much faster, driven by the increasing performance of our electronic devices.  Since I finished my graduate studies I’ve had five major roles:  faculty member in electrical engineering and computer science, associate dean of engineering, relationship building between MIT and industry, CIO, and now leadership coach.  Each role built on what I had previously done.  However, I needed to learn new things about the new work, about the culture around the role, about the political landscape, and about how to be a leader in that role.  And, in every instance, I would have benefitted from having begun this learning before I arrived in the new role.

So, as the academic year begins, take a few hours of uninterrupted time, turn the smart phone off, make sure you won’t be interrupted, and do some serious thinking and planning about what you need to learn.  Maybe it’s about the “technical” aspects of the position you see as your next job.  Maybe it is strengthening the leadership skills you’ve been developing.  You get the idea.  And, then develop a real plan – maybe it’s taking a course, on-line or in a classroom, maybe it’s getting a coach or mentor, maybe it’s taking on a new challenging project, maybe it’s some reading you’ve been planning to do, maybe its building some targeted relationships, etc. – and allocate the time for you to do the work to develop/strengthen the skills you will need.  And, do put it on your calendar and protect that time.  If you are not committed, it won’t get done.  If you are committed, you’ll get it done and you’ll be more prepared for that next step no matter what it is or when it comes.

I hope that you will take this opportunity to invest further in yourself this fall.  Make it a great week!  .  .  .     jim

Jim Bruce is a Senior Fellow and Executive Coach at MOR Associates, and Professor of Electrical Engineering, Emeritus, and CIO, Emeritus, at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA.


David Rotman, The Relentless Pace of Automation, MIT Technology Review, February 2013.

The White House, Artificial Intelligence, Automation, and the Economy, Executive Office of the President, December 2016.

(Briefing), Artificial Intelligence Rise of Machines, The Economist, May 2015.

CBS News, When Robots Take Over, Will There Be Jobs for the Rest of US?, April 2017.