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Department Welcomes David Autor for 2023 McKay Lecture

The Department welcomed David H. Autor, Ford Professor of Economics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, for the 2023 McKay Lecture on April 6 [recording of lecture available here].  Dr. Autor is a Faculty Research Fellow at the National Bureau of Economic Research, where he co-directs the NBER Labor Studies Program;  a Fellow of the Econometric Society, and a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.  He is also a co-leader of both the MIT Work of the Future Task Force and the J-PAL Work of the Future.

During his lecture titled “The Work of the Future: Where will it come from?”, reflecting on two centuries of automation (1890-2020) Professor Autor stated that “we have been very successful at automating ourselves out of a lot of work. And yet, surprisingly over the last 150 years, the employment rate of US adults has by and large risen from decade to decade.”  One of the reasons why despite automation there are still so many jobs is “insatiability:” as we get wealthier, our consumption needs tend to expand and we demand a larger variety of different types of goods, which creates new jobs. The second reason Autor emphasized was “augmentation,” as the tools we have make our work and expertise more valuable: “So tools are often augmenting us, not replacing us, but not always”. But the third and most important reason why there are still many jobs is that “the set of work we do is not static. We are continuously inventing new work.” According to Autor, “ about 6 out of 10 jobs that people do at present are things that have been invented since 1940.” In fact, what is distinct about these new jobs is that they require expertise or domain-specific knowledge.

Turning to the present and the future, Autor spoke about the promise and the peril of artificial intelligence (AI).  According to Autor, the peril of AI is that it will make human expertise less valuable at mass scale. In fact, a potential hazard comes with the delegation of expertise from the human to the AI computer, leaving the human “out of the loop.” As Autor stated: ”We knew more than we could tell computers, right? Now, AI computers know more than they can tell us… We often don’t know what they are doing.”  In closing, Autor left the audience with an important message: “What will the future hold?... This is not going to be determined by the technology per se. It’s going to be determined by choices that we collectively make as researchers, as policymakers, as consumers, as leaders of for-profit corporations.”

The lecture series is named for Professor Marion McKay, a past Department Chair. The lecture is open to the public and usually attracts a large audience of students and faculty, not only from within the university, but also from other local universities, and from the Pittsburgh business and local community. The lecture is scheduled at a time convenient for the guest speaker, usually in March or April.

Dr. McKay was Chair of the Economics Department here for over thirty years and remained active in economic and social questions until his death in 1978 at the age of 95.  A fund was established in his honor. One of the terms of the fund was the establishment of the McKay Lecture to bring a distinguished economist to the University of Pittsburgh to speak on a topic of broad interest. Past McKay Lecturers include James Tobin, Don Patinkin, Herbert Simon, Robert Lucas, Phyllis Deane, Gary Becker, Robert Solow, Joseph Stiglitz, Robert Townsend, Peter Diamond, Daron Acemoglu, Esther Duflo, Claudia Goldin and Alvin Roth. 

A recording of Autor’s lecture can be found here: