Marco Annunziata: What Will Human-Machine Collaboration Mean For Our Jobs?

Apr 21, 2017

Part 2 of the TED Radio Hour episode The Digital Industrial Revolution.

About Marco Annunziata's TED Talk

GE's Chief Economist Marco Annunziata is optimistic about "the marriage of minds and machines" — provided we manage it the right way.

About Marco Annunziata

Marco Annunziata is the Chief Economist at General Electric, where he is responsible for the global analysis that guides GE's business strategies.

He is the author of The Economics Of The Financial Crisis. Marco also maintains a blog about how technology is transforming our economy and the industrial sector.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit


It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Guy Raz. And on the show today, ideas about the digital industrial revolution and whether we should be worried or excited.

MARCO ANNUNZIATA: I am definitely an optimist.

RAZ: This is Marco Annunziata. Marco's the chief economist at General Electric.

ANNUNZIATA: I am aware as an economist being optimistic is kind of out of character, but I feel there are too many gloomy people out there, so I'm happpy to do my bit.

RAZ: One of Marco's main jobs is to predict what our jobs will look like in the future. And he says, not surprisingly, that in the next five to 10 to 20 years, almost everything about the workplace is going to change.

ANNUNZIATA: There will be a new and different form of interaction between humans and machines, both physical machines like robots and virtual machines like artificial intelligence.

RAZ: So - I don't know - if you can take us on a tour of that future, what does a normal person's day going to kind of be like at work? What are they going to experience? How are they going experience that?

ANNUNZIATA: So I think they will experience it in the following way. They will come on to a factory floor. Onto the factory floor, they will find an environment which is a lot more intelligent than today. Everything around the worker, whether it's the equipment the worker interacts with, the different items on the factory floor, will be equipped with sensors constantly sending data to artificial intelligence machines that will be analyzing the data and everything that is going on. There will be robots helping the worker perform whatever functions are involved in the specific job description in a much more efficient and a much safer way. These are applications that make work better.

RAZ: This collaboration between humans and machines is all part of what Marco calls the industrial Internet.


ANNUNZIATA: So what is this industrial Internet?

RAZ: He explained the idea from the TED stage.


ANNUNZIATA: It brings together intelligent machines, advanced analytics and the creativity of people that work. Industrial machines are being equipped with a growing number of electronic sensors that allow them to see, hear, feel a lot more than ever before, generating prodigious amounts of data. Increasingly sophisticated analytics then sift through the data, providing insights that allow us to operate the machines in entirely new ways a lot more efficiently. And not just individual machines but fleets of locomotives, airplanes, entire systems like power grids, hospitals. Let's start with aviation. Today, 10 percent of all flights, cancellations and delays are due to unscheduled maintenance events. These results in $8 billion in costs for the airline industry globally every year, not to mention the impact on all of us - stress, inconvenience, missed meetings - as we sit helplessly in an airport terminal.

So how can the industrial Internet help here? We've developed a preventive maintenance system which can be installed on any aircraft. It's self-learning and able to predict issues that a human operator would miss. The aircraft, while in flight, will communicate with technicians on the ground. By the time it lands, they will already know if anything needs to be serviced. Just in the U.S., a system like this can prevent over 60,000 delays and cancellations every year, helping 7 million passengers get to their destinations on time. So we are moving to a world where the machines we work with are not just intelligent. They are brilliant. It's jet engines, locomotives, medical devices, communicating seamlessly with each other and with us. It's the marriage of minds and machines. And our lives will never be the same.


RAZ: Yeah. I mean, it's a complete break from the way humans have lived and functioned since, you know, the beginning of time.

ANNUNZIATA: Absolutely, yes. And I think we are at the beginning of a massive historical transition, which will lead to a new economic system, a new industrial system, a new way of life, which will be really qualitatively different from what we are experiencing now. I mean, the impact is going to be enormous.

RAZ: So, I mean, how would you describe where we are today? Are we right at the precipice of this massive change, or are we already in it?

ANNUNZIATA: We are already in it, Guy, but we are at the very beginning of it. So for me, a plausible horizon for these new technologies to really spread and transform the industrial system and the economy as we know it, you're thinking of a horizon of 20 to 25 years, but that's for the complete transformation. Within the next five to 10 years, you will already see very substantial changes. And I'm saying this because some of these changes are already taking place.


ANNUNZIATA: Let's look at the big picture. There are people who argue that today's innovation is all about social media and silly games with nowhere near the transformational power of the Industrial Revolution. They see that all the growth-enhancing innovations are behind us. And every time I hear this, I can't help thinking that even back in the Stone Age there must have been a group of cavemen sitting around a fire one day looking very grumpy and looking disapprovingly at another group of cavemen rolling a stone wheel up and down a hill and saying to each other, yeah, this wheel thing - cool toy, sure. But compared to fire, it will have no impact. The big discoveries are all behind us.


ANNUNZIATA: This technological revolution is as inspiring and transformational is anything we have ever seen. Human creativity and innovation have always propelled us forward. They've created jobs. They've raised living standards. They've made our lives healthier and more rewarding. And the new wave of innovation, which is beginning to sweep through industry, is no different. I know that many of you will be concerned about the impact that innovation might have on jobs, and innovation is disruptive.

But let me stress two things here. First, innovation is fundamentally about growth. It makes products more affordable. It creates new demand, new jobs. Second, there is a concern that in the future there will only be room for engineers, data scientists and other highly specialized workers. And believe me, as an economist, I'm also scared. But think about it. Just as a child can easily figure out how to operate an iPad, soon a new generation of mobile and intuitive industrial applications will make life easier for workers of all skill levels. It's not going to be easy, but it is going to be worth it.


RAZ: I mean, all of these technologies that are coming online and that will come online and that will, you know, make many parts of our lives more efficient and make our, you know, economies more productive, I mean, there are going to be winners and losers, surely.

ANNUNZIATA: They're always sad, and one thing to keep in mind is sometimes technological innovations have unintended consequences that you need to watch for. So one key example - there's been a lot of attention and focus on the problem of unemployment and the risks coming from automation and artificial intelligence.

RAZ: Yeah.

ANNUNZIATA: Now, to me, that is something that needs to be taken very seriously. Now, I don't buy into the argument you hear that says that in the future, 50 percent of all jobs will disappear. And that is simply not true, and I think, in the end, the we will have more jobs. We will have better jobs, but some jobs will be automated away. The transition will be difficult. It will require people to acquire different skills. So how can we get from where we sit today to this brilliant future I'm envisioning where we will all have better jobs, more jobs? How do we get there in a way that creates the least disruption and for the smallest number of people because there will be disruption?


ANNUNZIATA: Provided that we manage this transition in the right way, it will definitely be a better future because I work with scientists and engineers and I see what innovation is doing, and that makes me optimistic.


RAZ: Marco Annunziata is the chief economist at GE. You can find his entire talk at Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.