MIT professors Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee in their new book, The Second Machine Age (Norton, 2014), look at recent advances in machine capability and suggest that we’re clearly heading into an age of brilliant technology, with robots soon capable of taking over massive new areas of human activity.
Computers are already impressively good at guiding driverless cars and beating humans at chess and Jeopardy. As Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology point out in their book The Second Machine Age, computers are increasingly going to be able to perform important parts of even mostly cognitive jobs, like picking stocks, diagnosing diseases and granting parole.
In “The Second Machine Age: Work, Progress, and Prosperity in a Time of Brilliant Technologies,” co-authors Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee discuss how the world is adapting to the changes brought about by rapid digital innovation and the further possibilities for that innovation. They write that “the key building blocks are already in place for digital technologies to be as important and transformational to society and the economy as the steam engine.” In short, they compare the potential of this era, which they deem the “second machine age,” to that of the Industrial Revolution.
The same thesis is advanced by another technology insider: Jaron Lainier. In his book Who Owns the Future?, he argues that the market logic of the internet is to create ever-higher rewards for a small number of innovators, while offloading financial risk onto wider society and destroying professional classes one by one: starting with the likes of record producers and journalists (cue the violin again) and then moving on to teachers, lawyers and healthcare workers.
In the 1950s, the bureaucracy was the computer. People were organised into technocratic systems to perform routinised information processing. But now the computer is the computer. The role of the human is not to be dispassionate, depersonalised or neutral. It is precisely the emotive traits that are rewarded: the voracious lust for understanding, the enthusiasm for work, the ability to grasp the gist, the empathetic sensitivity to what will attract attention and linger in the mind. Unable to compete when it comes to calculation, the best workers will come with heart in hand.
What distinguishes the second machine age from the first is intelligence. The machines of the first age replaced and multiplied the physical labour of humans and animals. The machines of the second age will replace and multiply our intelligence. The driving force behind this revolution is, argue the authors, the exponential increase in the power (or exponential fall in the cost) of computing. The celebrated example is Moore’s Law, named after Gordon Moore, a founder of Intel. For half a century, the number of transistors on a semiconductor chip has doubled at least every two years. Similar progress has occurred elsewhere.
Brynjolfsson: We think they’ll be possible if we change the conversation and get people thinking about it. For example, we’re particularly in favor of the earned income tax credit, which rewards people for working. The reason we want to do that is we recognize there’s a huge amount of value in work above and beyond the income it creates. So instead of taxing it, discouraging work the way our current system does, encouraging work with things like the earned income tax credit.
McAfee: You mentioned these are pretty far out ideas. That’s true right now, and its also true that they seem like these crazy left-wing socialist ideas, but we need to keep in mind things like were actually promoted really heavily by people like Milton Friedman back in the 60s and 70s, and nobody would call him a lefty. These things actually have kind of a long history, and interestingly a bipartisan history. It’s just in the current climate that they appear so crazy.
The strength of “The Second Machine Age” is how it weaves macro- and microeconomics with insights from a wide range of other disciplines into an accessible and convincing story. In some ways, Brynjolfsson and McAfee practice an older style of economics based more on logic, history and observation than on data and mathematical models. But in other ways, they are pioneering a fundamentally new economics, one based not on the old reality of scarcity but on a new reality of abundance that we are only just beginning to comprehend.
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