The Future of Work and the Viterbi Algorithm


If we were to extend Maslow’s hierarchy of needs — originally meant for individuals — to priorities and useful purposes for society at large, we would identify the following as key drivers of the economy: sustainability, security, health and life enrichment. I cannot avoid remarking that these four themes encapsulate the 14 Grand Challenges for Engineering of the National Academy of Engineering, which USC Viterbi has championed from its outset. This should not be surprising: Defined as leveraging phenomena for useful purposes, technology, in its most general sense, fundamentally enables the economy in all of the above manifestations, at all scales and worldwide. But I must also open a parenthesis to add societal organization means and tools (from business to financing, to policy, to the rules of law) that are essential to advance these objectives.

Technological evolution — the intellectual output of human ingenuity — often brings two outcomes: First, the automation of an increasing fraction of present economic activity, thus lessening the need for routine jobs and jobs of
a more manual nature. In parallel, within a short time lag, the unleashing of new opportunities for economic activity and new jobs, which, at least initially, are less routine and/or of a more cognitive nature (see more in the brilliant “The Second Machine Age,” by Andrew McAfee and Erik Brynjolfsson). This tight interplay between economic activity and technological innovation has always existed. In the past, the time scale of technological evolution was larger than the time scale of the average span of a typical job, and overall disruption was less profound. Today, however, in the present Fourth Industrial Revolution, where things change exponentially fast, the time scale of technological change has been significantly compressed to perhaps a decade or two. Even though economic activity continuously increases overall, this acceleration poses fundamental questions, such as on the impact on present jobs and on the nature of future (or even near-future) jobs. This issue of USC Viterbi magazine considers the exploration of this question and how engineering education should be evolving, constantly, to address these accelerating changes.

But as we look forward, it is always instructive to look back. In 1967, before the word internet even existed, USC engineering Ph.D. Andrew Viterbi, by looking far ahead, in the context of satellite communications, devised an ingenious method, the now-celebrated Viterbi algorithm, to preserve the fidelity of signals between emitter and receiver. The Viterbi algorithm revolutionized the field of communications and spawned unprecedented economic activity in the form of new industries and companies — including Qualcomm, which Andrew Viterbi co-founded. It has enabled modern-day communications, from GPS to mobile and iPhones to any smart device that processes signals (text, audio and video), and affects all aspects of economic activity, from sustainability to the joy of living. In the process, the Viterbi algorithm has become the fundamental enabler for the creation of perhaps hundreds of millions of jobs, directly or indirectly tied to it, from fundamental technology to digital media and worldwide communication, to augmenting the quality of life in our planet. It has literally brought the world closer together.

For the opening of the Viterbi Museum in 2005, artist Sandro Chia was commissioned to create a number of paintings portraying Andrew and Erna Viterbi’s impact on society. One that remains particularly poignant relates to this magazine’s topic.

It depicts the number of people who have benefited from the Viterbi algorithm. This is practically everyone living today. As we ponder the jobs of the future, Chia’s painting is an eloquent and powerful reminder of the catalytic role of technology today and in the future, and of the important legacy we inherited at the USC Viterbi School of Engineering as we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Viterbi algorithm.