Skip to content
Let's Meet
Let's Meet
    September 8, 2023

    Unleashing Potential: Jenny Larios Berlin of MIT on Navigating the AI Era, Embracing Disruption, and Fostering Entrepreneurial Innovation for Workforce Success

    Jenny Larios Berlin is an accomplished entrepreneur and academic who currently serves as an Entrepreneur in Residence at the Martin Trust Center for MIT Entrepreneurship and a lecturer in entrepreneurship at MIT Sloan. She completed her dual master's degree in Urban Planning and Business from MIT in 2015, a journey that eventually led her to found two startups.

    Berlin's first venture, Line Shift, operates in the creative art space, where she continues to lend her expertise as an advisor. Her second startup, Optimus Ride, revolutionized geofencing environments with shared electric and autonomous mobility solutions. Under her leadership as COO, Optus Ride grew from a nascent idea to a company employing over 200 individuals before its acquisition by Magna International, a leading OEM supplier and vehicle manufacturer.



    Jenny Larios Berlin, Entrepreneur in Residence at the Martin Trust Center for MIT Entrepreneurship and Lecturer in Entrepreneurship at MIT Sloan


    Invited back to MIT as a guest speaker for the Mobility Ventures class, Berlin's insights were greatly appreciated, leading to an invitation from the center's managing director to join as an Entrepreneur in Residence. Now, Berlin harnesses the same support and encouragement she received during her student years at MIT to empower current students on their entrepreneurial journeys.

    I recently sat down to chat with Berlin about future of work trends as part of my research to produce Season 1 of The Lever with Drew Fortin. This show highlights how the rise of artificial intelligence (AI), robotics, and Web3 will shift the paradigm of humans at work for the better. I wrote this article based on my notes and transcripts from the interview. You can also watch a video of my interview with Jenny Larios Berlin, Entrepreneur in Residence at the Martin Trust Center for MIT Entrepreneurship and Lecturer in Entrepreneurship at MIT Sloan.


    Berlin's Journey in AI, Robotics, and the Evolution of Autonomous Mobility

    Berlin began her journey in AI and robotics with a steadfast belief in the potential of autonomous mobility to be accessible, affordable, and sustainable. As co-founder of Optimus Ride, she recognized the significant role such technology could play in reducing greenhouse gas emissions and creating a healthier world.

    In the initial stages, the focus was on urban design and business opportunities rather than technical aspects. However, as the company evolved, so did their understanding of the necessary technology. The realization dawned that redundant safety systems were essential for autonomous vehicles to coexist with human drivers. Therefore, the technological stack expanded to include not just cameras but also lidars, radars, sonars, and GPS.

    Interestingly, Berlin noticed a peculiar attitude towards robots and automation. People often challenged the technology, testing its limits in ways they wouldn't dare with human drivers. This revealed a societal hierarchy where humans expected robots to be subservient and superior in performance. Such expectations, she reasoned, contribute to the slow adoption of autonomous mobility

    "There's something to be said about this idea of 'the robot is subservient to me, and I'm going to make sure that I'm constantly checking this hierarchy of importance that I am the human, I am the one on top, and I'm making sure that everything and anything is both responsive and subservient to what I want and what I need.' As a result, the burden comes on the technologist to build a technology that can be better." - Jenny Larios Berlin, Entrepreneur in Residence and Lecturer at MIT Sloan

    Comparisons are often made between the evolution of autonomous vehicles and the aircraft industry, with the expectation that autonomous mobility should function with the same level of safety. However, Berlin believes that this new industry is somewhere in between, requiring time and education for widespread acceptance.

    Berlin's journey with Optimus Ride reflects the evolution of AI and robotics in the transportation sector, highlighting the complex interplay of technical, societal, and environmental factors that influence the development and acceptance of such disruptive technologies.

    A Vision for AI, Automation, and the Evolution of Workforce Skills

    Berlin has an insightful perspective on the disruption caused by autonomous machines and artificial intelligence (AI). She believes in evaluating the value chain and identifying areas that could be affected by automation and AI. Her focus is on the gap in skills and how individuals can be upskilled to support future technological advancements.

    For instance, she uses the example of call centers. In autonomous mobility systems, the role of the driver as a "referee" is eliminated. The new model requires remote monitoring and communication with passengers. This creates a new type of job where vehicle management blends with customer service. The challenge lies in preparing existing drivers to transition into these new roles.

    Another example Berlin cites is in manufacturing. Assisted robots could potentially handle tasks such as locating items, while humans are responsible for quality control. This shift could streamline processes and cut costs, but it also necessitates changing human skill sets.

    A recurring theme in Berlin's perspective is the need to prepare for changes in the workplace due to automation and AI. Whether it's the demand for electricians in the growing electric vehicle charging infrastructure sector or the potential for entrepreneurs in solar panel installation, she emphasizes the importance of aligning talent and business strategies.

    "Do people really need to go to college or can they go to trade schools and be their own entrepreneur and build businesses around these gap areas that are being created in these industries?" - Jenny Larios Berlin, Entrepreneur in Residence and Lecturer at MIT Sloan 

    Berlin also highlights the ethical considerations when leveraging global labor markets for tasks such as image classification. While the compensation might seem low from a Western perspective, it can significantly impact other economies. The goal should be to avoid exploitation and instead foster educational opportunities and wealth access.

    Berlin reflects on the timeline of commercializing new technologies, specifically referencing the aviation industry. Citing research from MIT, she noted that the transition from introducing a new technology to its adoption can span 30 to 50 years.

    However, determining when this timeline starts is more complex. Berlin raises several key milestones in the journey of technology development and deployment, such as GM's investment in Cruise Automation, Google's announcement of testing autonomous vehicles on California streets, or the full deployment of Cruise vehicles in San Francisco.

    She poses the question: Which of these events marks the start of the 30 to 50-year timeframe? This encompasses policy and regulation development and infrastructure investments necessary for a robust industry. Berlin emphasizes that often, these determinations are made in hindsight.

    Seizing Opportunities in Disruption: A Strategic Outlook on Upskilling & Retraining

    Berlin has a keen eye on the sectors and job functions vulnerable to disruption from autonomous machines and artificial intelligence (AI). She views this shift as an opportunity to analyze the value chain, identify areas where AI and automation can make an impact, and then work towards upskilling the workforce to support these changes.

    She uses the example of call centers in the context of deploying autonomous mobility systems. With no driver to mediate passenger interactions, a new model is needed where remote monitoring and customer service become crucial. Berlin sees this as an opportunity to transition existing drivers into roles that combine vehicle management with customer service.

    In manufacturing, she envisions assisted robots handling item location tasks, leaving humans to focus on quality control. This change could make processes more affordable and systematic, but it also requires a shift in human skill sets.

    Berlin also called attention to the rising demand for electricians in the growing electric vehicle charging infrastructure sector. She advocates for nurturing talent pipelines and exploring alternative education paths like trade schools. Furthermore, she highlights potential entrepreneurial opportunities in areas like solar panel installation.

    Internationally, she discusses the use of labor in different countries for tasks such as image classification. While the compensation might seem low from a Western perspective, it can significantly impact other economies. Berlin emphasizes the need to avoid exploitation and instead foster educational opportunities and wealth access.

    Analyzing Employee-Employer Dynamics in a Capitalist Society

    During our time together, Berlin contemplated the state of the employee-employer relationship worldwide, questioning whether it's universally fraught or if there are exceptions. She acknowledges that from a U.S. perspective, issues exist that are likely rooted in the country's capitalist nature. This mindset encourages individuals to prioritize self-interest, leading to a culture where personal gain is paramount.

    She challenges the healthiness of this worldview, suggesting that it fosters a zero-sum game mentality and stifles community-building. Berlin argues that this mindset can lead to partisanship, with ideologies becoming divisive lines in the sand.

    "There's this fundamental capitalistic perspective, which is that we are trying to figure out how to maximize growth of the organization, and that's what all elements are focused on." - Jenny Larios Berlin, Entrepreneur in Residence and Lecturer at MIT Sloan

    In organizations, she noted a disconnect between employees' expectations of people operations or HR departments and their actual purpose. Many employees perceive these units as their advocates, aiding their growth within the company. However, Berlin points out that their primary function is to protect the company and focus on maximizing organizational growth.

    This divergence in understanding can lead to disillusionment among employees who feel that their interests are not being adequately represented. Berlin isn't necessarily endorsing this model but rather highlighting her observations. She suggests that it's this dynamic that has contributed to the strained relationship between employees and employers.

    Embracing Human Ingenuity: A Need for Creativity and Lifelong Learning in the AI Era

    Berlin has a profound appreciation for the unique value that humans bring to the workplace, particularly their creativity. She emphasized that while AI tools like Chat-GPT are impressive, they are fundamentally trained on human creativity. These systems are limited and guided by the data they are fed, and Berlin cautions against overvaluing such a model without scrutinizing its input.

    She champions humans' critical role in assessing these AI models' quality. According to her, it's humans who can synthesize disparate pieces of information, judge what makes sense, and fuel originality.

    "I think that's where I get nervous in the US context, which is we don't put enough love and support to our educators. We don't invest enough in our students from an education perspective to really fall in love with learning and creativity and reading and inspiration because it's what you're always going to need from the worker to help eliminate the redundant stuff, to help eliminate the boring stuff, all the stuff that people do because they need a job." - Jenny Larios Berlin, Entrepreneur in Residence and Lecturer at MIT Sloan

    In the context of the US, Berlin expresses concern over the lack of support for educators and investment in students' love for learning, creativity, reading, and inspiration. She envisions a future where work is not just a means to an end but a platform for individuals to do what they love and unlock their potential.

    She stresses the importance of fostering a love for learning and helping people discover what inspires them. Berlin concludes by stating that the market ultimately determines an individual's value. It holds value if someone is willing to pay for a service.

    Empowering Strategic Career Growth and Managing Gig Economy Trade-Offs

    Berlin believes in the potential of direct-to-consumer educational and career development services, citing the example of platforms like MasterClass. These platforms offer high-quality courses taught by industry leaders, providing workers with valuable skills and knowledge.

    She expressed concern about the growing gig economy and the implications for workers who might view themselves as entrepreneurs rather than contracted employees. Berlin emphasizes the importance of understanding the trade-offs involved, including the lack of benefits and job security.

    She encourages individuals to use their time wisely, particularly those with flexible schedules. Berlin suggests that they could leverage this time to prepare for the next step in their careers - starting a small or innovation-driven enterprise.

    "We really have to help people want to learn. And figure out what their potential value is or what's that thing inside that inspires them so that they can go out and do that and be paid for it." - Jenny Larios Berlin, Entrepreneur in Residence and Lecturer at MIT Sloan

    Berlin also touched on the issue of student loans and the potential financial burden students may face once interest payments resume. She sees parallels between this and individuals not strategically using their time or money, warning that a lack of planning could lead to scrambling later on.

    Her ultimate message is one of empowerment: individuals should love what they spend most of their time doing and be strategic in how they use their resources to prepare for future opportunities.

    Embracing Entrepreneurial Innovation: A Call to Action for Social Change through Technology and Mindset

    Berlin is in a unique position, assisting some of the world's brightest minds as they innovate new products, ideas, and companies. She notes that many of these innovators are tackling significant issues in climate tech and healthcare. Berlin emphasized the importance of an entrepreneurial mindset in start-ups and across all sectors, including government, nonprofit, and corporate environments.

    She believes in empowering individuals to approach problems with this entrepreneurial mindset, encouraging them to tackle complex challenges and contribute to improving the world. At present, she observes that the focus is predominantly on healthcare and climate change.

    Berlin asks, "How can we promote health so we can be our best selves? How can we address climate change, the existential crisis of our time?" She discusses the use of various tools - from AI and machine learning to hardware and manufacturing - to improve these areas and confront the pressing issue of climate change. She posits that we can create a healthier society and enable individuals to realize their full potential.

    Berline extends an invitation to any folks who want to learn more about entrepreneurship or what's going on at MIT. "Visit the Trust Center," she said. "We are open to one and all."

    Want to hear more from Jenny Larios Berlin, Entrepreneur in Residence and Lecturer at MIT Sloan?


    Drew Fortin

    Drew is a people-first, values-driven leader with nearly 20 years of growth strategy and team-building experience across retail, marketing technology, local media, and HR tech. He spent 7 years at The Predictive Index, where he was Chief Growth Officer responsible for the company's strategy to build the world's first...

    More from the blog

    View All Posts