Technology as Friend, Foe, or Partner? - InformationWeek

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Data Management // AI/Machine Learning

Technology as Friend, Foe, or Partner?

The latest book by MIT researchers Andrew McAfee and Erik Brynjolfsson explores the human/machine relationship and how businesses can prepare for the changes that the next 10 years will bring.

We live in an age of fear. Start with the big picture, ISIS, the ideological divide in Washington, and the turbulent economic/business environment.

However, fear really centers locally in us as individuals. We internalize everything that happens in the big picture and frame it for our own little world. We never lose sight of the key questions: What does this mean to me? What happens to me in a few years? To my family?

Crop the big picture down just a bit so we are focusing on technology. Golly, gee, we love our technology.

The supercomputer of a phone in our pocket becomes a dinner companion, even on date night with someone special. Google and Siri feed us a world of facts that help us close big business deals or search for movie and sports trivia. Technology fuels automation. A few clicks and that latest gadget is on its way from Amazon, the only human touch points coming when it is loaded and unloaded by next-day delivery services. The money to pay for it? All digital.

But there can be a dark side to technology and automation. We recognize it every time we read about a data breach, and the uncertainty is slowly bleeding into other aspects of life. There's a buzz these days about whether AI-based machines will replace humans in the workplace. If tech catches up to our company, will we still have a job? That job is what makes everything else possible. 

MIT researchers and thought leaders Andrew McAfee and Erik Brynjolfsson have studied this dynamic extensively, looking at the relationship between humans and machines for about a decade. They have explored how computers, robots, and data are impacting business, the workplace, and our lives.

Their latest book, being released today, is Machine, Platform, Crowd: Harnessing Our Digital Future

McAfee provided a taste of the work in his keynote address at last month's Interop ITX conference. Then, he highlighted how Google Deepmind's AlphaGo defeated the world's best Go player. He discussed how companies such as Uber and AirBnB have disrupted industries despite having virtually no traditional corporate assets.

A preview of the new book on Amazon opens with some of the same points, setting the stage for a discussion of how businesses can prepare for the changes that have already established a pretty solid foothold in the business world and in our lives as consumers and workers.

Image: MIT News
Image: MIT News

The authors said we are in "Phase 2 of the 2nd Machine Age," noting, "First, it's a time when technologies are demonstrating that they can do work that we've never thought of as pre-programmed or routine. Second, hundreds of millions of people started to have powerful, flexible and connected computers with them at all times."

The authors go on to describe the "counterparts" that traditional business structures have in the emerging digital world. Think of the human "mind" as pairing with machine intelligence, something that is already part of the work environment with accountants relying on spreadsheets and robots supplementing the human workforce on the factory floor.

Traditional "products" have a counterpart in what the authors call the "platform," or the services that have become central to so many companies, new and old. Then, there is the existing "core" of a business, a company's knowledge, processes, expertise and capabilities. The core's counterpart is the "crowd," which you can think of as the crowd-sourcing concept that emerged a decade ago, but is now much bigger with machines sharing knowledge and ideas.

Does all of this mean a computer will replace you in the office? It doesn't have to. The authors seem to lean toward the idea that technology will augment, not replace human workers.

"We're not going to tell you that minds, products, and core are obsolete, or headed that way. Such a claim would be absurd. As we'll show repeatedly, human abilities, excellent goods and services, and strong organizational capabilities remain essential to business success," Brynjolfsson and McAfee wrote in their first chapter. "Companies need to rethink the balance between minds and machines, between products and platforms, and between the core and the crowd."

They make an interesting point about the role of machines in business, placing the burden of deciding to replace humans with machines on people -- the businesses -- writing, "Technology is a tool. That is true whether it's a hammer or a deep neural network. Tools don't decide what happens to people. We decide."

Related reading:


Jim Connolly is a versatile and experienced technology journalist who has reported on IT trends for more than two decades. As editorial director of InformationWeek and Network Computing, he oversees the day-to-day planning and editing on the site. Most recently he was editor ... View Full Bio

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