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.
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.
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.