The Second Machine Age: Meet Your Computer Overlords

A maddeningly reasonable and readable new book by Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee argues that while a robot may take your job, the economy will prosper.

Thomas Claburn, Editor at Large, Enterprise Mobility

January 16, 2014

8 Min Read

When Jeopardy champion Ken Jennings wrote his final answer, knowing that he and fellow human contestant Brad Rutter had been bested by an IBM computer called Watson, he included a personal note: "I for one welcome our new computer overlords."

In their compelling new book The Second Machine Age, Erik Brynjolfsson, director of the MIT Center for Digital Business, and Andrew McAfee, principal research scientist at the MIT Center for Digital Business, cite Jennings's concession, among many other anecdotes, as evidence of the accelerating and transformative intellectual capacity of machines.

Just as the industrial age altered the market for physical labor, the computer age is remaking the market for mental labor, the authors argue.

Shortly after his defeat, Jennings offered a self-effacing and surprisingly sanguine account of his contest with Watson in a Slate article titled "My Puny Human Brain."

"Just as factory jobs were eliminated in the 20th century by new assembly-line robots, Brad and I were the first knowledge-industry workers put out of work by the new generation of 'thinking' machines. 'Quiz show contestant' may be the first job made redundant by Watson, but I'm sure it won't be the last."

Brynjolfsson and McAfee strike a more cautious tone – Jennings's characterization of his defeat as a "happy ending" comes across as Stockholm Syndrome – but they convey more or less the same message: The robots are coming, and they'll going to take jobs as well as create them. But we'll manage.

"After spending time working with leading technologists and watching one bastion of human uniqueness after another fall before the inexorable onslaught of innovation, it's becoming harder and harder to have confidence that any given task will be indefinitely resistant to automation," they write.

The tl;dr version for those seeking to delay obsolescence: In the near term, humans will have an edge in careers that require creativity (e.g. creating innovative software or elegant prose), the recognition of broad patterns (e.g. fashion trends), complex forms of communication (e.g. interrogations), and tasks that depend on mobility in unpredictable environments (e.g. electricians). But beyond that, don't underestimate what computers will be able to do in a few decades.

The Second Machine Age is maddeningly reasonable and readable. It's neither Luddite polemic nor libertarian techno-utopianism. For those who follow technology closely, much of the foundational history upon which the authors build their argument will be familiar, though there's value in revisiting the accomplishments of tech luminaries and businesses in a cohesive framework. For those unfamiliar with names like Rodney Brooks, Gordon Moore, and Hans Moravec, prepare to be alarmed and reassured at the same time.

In a phone interview, Brynjolfsson explained that the goal of the book is to bridge the divide between the wild optimism exhibited by technologists and the pessimism of many current economists, for the benefit of policymakers.

At the same time, McAfee stresses that The Second Machine Age isn't a cookbook for enlightened bureaucracy. "The solutions to job and wage problems are not going to come from Washington, but from the activities of entrepreneurs and innovators," he said.

Befitting a book begotten by MIT academics, The Second Machine Age is a paean to entrepreneurship, education, and growth-oriented regulation. That's evident from the first pages when the authors cite the work of anthropologist Ian Morris to argue that the surge in human social development made possible by the steam engine and the industrial era "made a mockery of all the drama of the world's earlier history," as Morris put it.

Intriguing though this hockey-stick graph may be as a reflection of the economic significance of the industrial revolution, it's dangerously reductive for those with concerns that stretch into civic, political, and cultural realms.

To their credit, Brynjolfsson and McAfee grapple with the some of the thornier issues accompanying the computer age, like the growing gap between the rich and poor, the potential for a largely idle population, and the tendency of technology to create winner-takes-all markets.

In one example, they point to the way that TurboTax software has enriched its creators but endangered the jobs and incomes of tens of thousands of tax preparers. Creative destruction wrought by the march of technology becomes problematic when it shifts wealth from many to few.

"In the words of Marc Andreessen, software is eating the world," said Brynjolfsson. "You get a lot of winner take-all-markets, which is great for [the makers of TurboTax] and consumers not so much for people of average skills [who have been made redundant]."

And therein lies Silicon Valley's pathological blind spot: The celebration of entrepreneurship argues for a star-system. Like Hollywood dreams, it's a narrative about talent and success that focuses on the few winners rather than the multitudes of losers. If only we were all the geniuses we see in the mirror.

The authors acknowledge that when income is distributed by power law -- in which a small number reap a disproportionate share -- it not only increases income inequality but it also disrupts our institutions.

Look no further than the anti-gentrification sentiment Google has confronted in the San Francisco Bay Area to see that economic arguments about the overall social benefit of tech-driven wealth creation don't resonate with everyone. And moving the masses to accept their new computer overlords is likely to mean sharing the opportunity if not sharing the wealth. If only the example set by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation were more widely emulated.

Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of The Second Machine Age is how the authors propose to deal with the situation. There among the pro-business economics are glimpses of socialism, or to use a less loaded terminology, social concern. As they put it, "...we are going to need more novel and radical ideas -- more 'out-of-the-box' thinking -- to deal with the consequences of technological progress." Consider that a measure of the disruptive potential of technology.

At a time when Congress can barely be cajoled to agree on a budget, when efforts to improve healthcare divide us rather than unite us, and antiquated legislation hamstrings innovation, calling for radical ideas seems impossibly ambitious.

The authors strike a more optimistic note. "The surprise to me is how many things we can do from a policy perspective and how much common ground there is about what the smart things to do are," said McAfee. "When we talk to business leaders with a range of backgrounds, we hear a lot of commonality on immigration, entrepreneurship, and education."

In the book, Brynjolfsson and McAfee float the idea of revisiting Nixon's Family Assistance Plan, a basic income program that would assure a minimum standard of living an era of technologically magnified unemployment.

But they're quick to stress that their preferred approach involves providing support in conjunction with an incentive to work. Through what's known as a negative income tax -- in which those below a certain threshold receive scaled payments -- and lower labor taxes, they argue low earners could be helped and simultaneously encouraged to work. They also would like to see some consideration for a value-added tax (VAT) and Pigovian (deterrence-oriented) taxes in lieu of income taxes.

The authors also call for more support of crowdsourcing, to encourage the development of services like Airbnb, Lyft, and TaskRabbit. And in the spirit of Google, circa 2006, they throw out a few non-endorsed ideas to see what sticks: a national mutual fund for distributing capital ownership to all citizens as a hedge against wealth concentration; taxes, contests, and other incentives to make machines augment humans rather than replace them; using non-profits to perform socially beneficial tasks, as determined by democratic vote; human-employment offsets, a reward for companies that employ enough people; vouchers for basic necessities; and a revival of Depression-era 'workfare' programs for the public benefit.

The principal shortcoming of The Second Machine Age is that it's a suspended narrative. Like the recently released The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, it just ends, without a clear conclusion. While it may be scientifically appropriate to withhold judgment in the absence of data -- how else, really, can a non-fiction book about the future end? -- it's emotionally unsatisfying. We are talking, after all, about the end of the world as we know it. What happens to the humans? Do they survive the robot revolution? And does that crazy scientist ever get together with that free-spirited android? Inquiring minds want to know.

But in the absence of closure, The Second Machine Age leaves us with the next best thing: questions about the kind of future we want. It's interactive media of a sort. "Technology is not destiny," Brynjolfsson and McAfee conclude. "We shape our destiny."

Let's get to work on that, while we still can.

Thomas Claburn is editor-at-large for InformationWeek. He has been writing about business and technology since 1996 for publications such as New Architect, PC Computing, InformationWeek, Salon, Wired, and Ziff Davis Smart Business. He's the author of a science fiction novel, Reflecting Fires, and his mobile game Blocfall Free is available for iOSAndroid, and Kindle Fire.

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About the Author(s)

Thomas Claburn

Editor at Large, Enterprise Mobility

Thomas Claburn has been writing about business and technology since 1996, for publications such as New Architect, PC Computing, InformationWeek, Salon, Wired, and Ziff Davis Smart Business. Before that, he worked in film and television, having earned a not particularly useful master's degree in film production. He wrote the original treatment for 3DO's Killing Time, a short story that appeared in On Spec, and the screenplay for an independent film called The Hanged Man, which he would later direct. He's the author of a science fiction novel, Reflecting Fires, and a sadly neglected blog, Lot 49. His iPhone game, Blocfall, is available through the iTunes App Store. His wife is a talented jazz singer; he does not sing, which is for the best.

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