Feb 5 3:00 PM

Are humans prepared for the Second Machine Age?

"The Second Machine Age" co-author Erik Brynjolfsson.
(Book cover courtesy W.W. Norton. Photo by Evgenia Eliseeva)

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. 

Brynjolfsson, a professor at the MIT Sloan School of Management and director of the MIT Center for Digital Business, joined Antonio Mora on the Feb. 5 edition of “Consider This.” In this Web exclusive interview, Brynjolfsson weighs in on the need for human/machine collaboration as well as the opportunities and challenges of the Second Machine Age.

How far along do you think we are in terms of the Second Machine Age, and how rapid do you think this change will be?

We're still in the early days of the Second Machine Age. The first Industrial Revolution literally took over a century to play out, and I expect that the Second Machine Age will also play out for at least decades, maybe more. That's not to say that the technology isn't advancing very rapidly — it is — but the adjustments in our skills, our organizations, our institutions, in our business models, take a lot longer. 

You write that machines are not yet creative, that the ability to generate ideas and pose new questions is an area where humans have a comparative advantage over machines. Do you see the potential for that to change?

One of the things I've learned in looking at what machines can do and what humans can do is never to say never. And we've seen machines take on more and more capabilities and skills that used to be uniquely human. And there are glimmers of places where machines can be — you could call it creative. There was a chess move that Bobby Fischer did when he was 15 years old that was hailed as one of the most creative insights in the game of chess. Today, if you plug that same position into any simple chess program, even one running on a cellphone, it will quickly discover the same insight that Bobby Fischer made. So you could call that kind of creative, but (creativity is) certainly one of the areas that humans have a relative comparative advantage in today. 

One of the things I’ve learned in looking at
what machines can do and what humans can do is
never to say never. And we’ve seen machines take
on more and more capabilities and skills that used
to be uniquely human.

Erik Brynjolfsson

co-author, ‘The Second Machine Age’

You also write that humans must adapt to collaborate with machines, and when that collaboration happens, the end result is stronger. How do you anticipate this happening?

Our earlier book was called "Race Against the Machine," and we concluded that racing against the machine was not a winning strategy, but racing with machines, collaborating with machines, was a winning strategy: finding ways to leverage machines to do new things we couldn't have ever done before, rather than replacing humans and doing the same things that we're doing today. Just to stick with the chess example — today, as you probably know, the best chess supercomputer can easily beat a human grandmaster. But what you may not know is that a team of humans and computers, working together, can easily beat the best chess supercomputer, or, of course, the best human working alone. There's now a new kind of chess called freestyle chess, which involves teams of humans and computers working together. The humans have particularly good capabilities (in terms) of getting insights into the strategies that might work, and the computers are very good at crunching through moves and seeing if they actually play out the way the humans hope they will. And this combination has been very powerful. We're hopeful that this idea of combining the best of humans and the best of machines to solve problems in new ways won't just work in games like chess, but will work in science, in areas like protein folding, and in data and analytics and many other domains where technology can amplify human activity and insights. 

You also write that all of these advancements in technology have reshaped the workforce, have reshaped what jobs are available and who's able to do them. I'm wondering what skills you see as important, looking forward, for those seeking the best chance of having a job.

What we've already seen is that jobs involving so-called routine information processing — things like tax preparation or travel agents — have been especially hard hit, and the number of people doing those jobs has fallen in the United States as technology takes over more and more of those tasks. But other jobs, like caring for people, making emotional connections, nurturing people, that you might see in nurses, or primary school teaching, or sales — motivating people — those have grown and become more important. Machines aren't good at making that kind of human connection, so that's something that we have a comparative advantage in. And earlier, I mentioned creativity, entrepreneurship — coming up with new business models and new ways of using technology and people to create value. That's also something that people have a creative advantage in.

An Ultimaker 3-D printer at work.
Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Considering the types of technology humans are now developing and interacting with, where do you think 3-D printing fits into the equation as technology continues to evolve?

We're in the very early days of 3-D printing, and I have been astonished by the kinds of objects that can be made with 3-D printers or additive manufacturing. Not just cheap plastic objects, but sometimes very complicated, sophisticated components like jet engine parts, or even human organs, as the same technology is used to deposit living cells, layer by layer. This is a real breakthrough that allows you to essentially get complexity for free. You can design a complicated arrangement of atoms, and the 3-D printer lays them together in the arrangement that you designed, and you can make additional replicas at very low additional cost.

Where do you think wearable technology such as Google Glass or smart watches fits into the equation?

Wearable tech is one of the places where maybe we'll see humans and machines merging their strengths together and building on them. I think that many of the first-generation technologies are pretty awkward and not necessarily stylish, but that you can see the seeds of some incredible possibilities there. Say somebody's working on repairing a car engine and can have an overlay of the relevant diagrams and parts while they're working in real time — that could be really valuable, or (for surgery), or other sorts of applications. I suspect that the big payoff is going to be in some of those business applications before it gets popular for consumers.

A Google self-driving car in Washington, D.C.
Photo by Karen Bleier/AFP/Getty Images

Technology such as self-driving cars, and even the wearable tech — people seem to be skeptical toward this. Do you think there will be a time at which they're widely accepted, and what do you think would make people overcome that wariness? 

I think it's a natural reaction to be skeptical or even frightened. To be frank, I was a little frightened when I first rode in the self-driving car. We were driving down Route 101 in California and the car in front of us came to a dead stop, and I was just kind of gripping the seat hoping that our robot driver would know to stop there in the middle of the highway. Fortunately, it did. I'm here today to talk to you about it since it did. And after a while I started becoming more comfortable with the technology, and by the end of the ride — we rode all the way from Mountain View up to San Francisco — by the end of the ride I was pretty comfortable with the technology. I could say I was even getting kind of bored because it was cruising along so smoothly, so uneventfully, at 55 mph that it was kind of like watching a dishwasher do its work: It might have been fascinating when I first saw it as a little boy, but now I really don't think twice about it.

I think we need to change the conversation —
to understand how these advances in technology
are affecting society and the economy, and the
things that we can do to make the outcomes
favorable for all of us.

What excites you most about this second machine age?

What excites me most are the continuing surprises and breakthroughs that are happening in technology, and the potential they have. Even though I make my living trying to stay on the cutting edge of what technologists are doing in so many different fields, I still continue to be amazed when they make yet another breakthrough. [Professor of physics] Albert Bartlett once said that the greatest failing of the human mind is the inability to understand the exponential function, and so many of these trends are improving exponentially, which means that at first they seem to hardly move at all and then all of a sudden they rapidly accelerate, and people like me often get caught off guard by that. But that makes it an exciting job that I have, to keep up with that, and an important one, because I think we need to change the conversation — to understand how these advances in technology are affecting society and the economy, and the things that we can do to make the outcomes favorable for all of us.

And in keeping with that, what concerns you most?

What concerns me right now is that we won't update our skills, our organizations, our institutions fast enough to keep up with the changing technology, and that will lead either to a backlash against the technology or to some major economic disruptions (during) which a lot of people will get left behind. Unfortunately, there's no economic law that says that everybody is going to benefit from advances in technology, even if it does make the overall pie bigger. The only way that we can make sure that there will be shared prosperity is if we work very hard to achieve it. And that's why I hope that the readers of this book will understand the underlying opportunities and challenges, and take action to shape the world to match up with the kind of values that I think most of us have.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

Tune in to Al Jazeera America tonight at 10 ET/7 PT to watch Brynjolfsson's interview with “Consider This” host Antonio Mora. Learn more about “The Second Machine Age: Work, Progress, and Prosperity in a Time of Brilliant Technologies.” You can follow Brynjolfsson on Twitter: @erikbryn.

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