Preparing for the second machine age

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In the same way the dawn of computing hurried the death of a range of vocations there’s no doubt that increasing automation and progress in fields like artificial intelligence (AI) will mean the death knell for industries and careers we take for granted today. It’s unavoidable, but there’s no need to panic, the trick is to understand what’s coming in broad terms and prepare accordingly.

“Programming is the new wizardry,” says Alexis Ohanian, cofounder of Reddit, during a session he hosted at Dell World in Austin, Texas earlier this month. “Think of the printing press – the written word used to be that. Now programming is the new literacy. The people who can do it have all the power to create and change the world.”

Ohanian says the internet has also made it possible for people to create new ways of making a living, and that a growing number of people are now creators and not just consumers because the Internet has made it possible to learn new skills and use them to create new industries or massively disrupt existing ones.

Alexis Ohanian

Alexis Ohanian

“Hardware and software are changing the world,” he says. “They’re changing everything and affecting every single industry.”

Ohanian was on stage to introduce Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee of MIT, co-authors of “The Second Machine Age”, a book that considers the effect of technology on the way we live and – more importantly – work, today, and that offers some suggestions about what we ought to do if we’re to be prepared tomorrow.

Brynjolfsson says changing the world has traditionally required two things: a power system that can move or transform things, and a control system that can decide where and how this happens. The second machine age, he says, is all about control systems. It’s about mental power, not just in terms of knowledge economy workers but in terms of the computers, software, big data analytics and machine intelligence that can either complement the worker’s roles, or threaten them.

What’s very different in this machine age, compared to the industrial revolution, is the rate of change. Today it’s exponential. Steam engines still need someone to control them, but it’s less clear today whether technology is something we control or whether in due course it will usurp our roles.

Ten years ago unique human capabilities included the aptitude for autonomous mobility and fine motor control, language and complex communications and pattern matching and unstructured problem solving, Brynjolfsson says. Today, a mere decade later, Tesla’s highly automated production lines, Google’s self-driving cars and IBM’s self-educating Watson supercomputer, threaten the uniqueness of these capabilities.

Brynjolfsson points out that while digital progress makes the economic pie bigger, “there is no economic law that everyone, or even most people, will benefit”. He says this is something economists call biased technical change – that is, technology helps some groups more than others.

Moreover, the nature of digital goods means the economic pie can grow while the benefits accrue to very few because these goods can be replicated, perfectly, for almost nothing and delivered instantaneously. “They’re almost free, they’re perfect and they’re instant,” he says.

McAfee says that doesn’t mean we should forget all of the good technology does, but perhaps it means we should reevaluate how we school our children and ourselves for this second machines age. Machines, he says, are good at rote learning, but humans are good at creativity so why then, he asks, are we teaching children to rote learn information when we should be teaching them how to harness their creativity instead?

Erik Brynjolfsson

Erik Brynjolfsson

All economists no matter which way they lean agree that the following things are important for building a strong economy, McAfee says. “Education, world-class infrastructure, entrepreneurship – which is the engine of job creation, conducive immigration policies – because you want to attract the most tenacious people, and a research-friendly environment – which is where things like the Internet came from.”

McAfee says all of the aforementioned are suffering in the US today and these are the issues people ought to be focusing on if we’re ever to create the sort of “utopian place where we can discuss ideas supported not by human slaves like in Athens but by great technologies”.

“Technologies themselves won’t determine the future, the choices we make as a people will decide it,” he adds.

So how does one prepare? Brynjolfsson says we need to focus on the things that set us apart form machines: “Emotional intelligence, creativity and life-long learning”. He says the “biggest rewards in this age go to those who really excel and it’s really hard to excel unless you truly love something, so do something you are excited about.”

“Think how many world-class educational resources are available online right now,” McAfee adds. “There’s a toolkit and resources that were unimaginable a few years ago. What we ought to do is teach our children that the world is a really interesting place and that they should go poke at it.”

Craig Wilson was a guest of Dell at Dell World 2014.

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