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121 of 127 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A New Age of Smart Machines
In "The Second Machine Age," Brynjolfsson and McAfee argue that as technology advances exponentially and combinatorially it is taking us into an entirely new era. In the future we can expect more of everything, including both tangible goods and digital products and services, at lower and lower prices. They call this "Bounty." There is a dark side as well, however...
Published 6 months ago by Bill Jarvis

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33 of 38 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Disappointing -- retelling the race against the machine.
Brynjolfsson is one of the most forward and provocative thinkers out there about technology and its impact on economics. The book he co-authored with Andy McAfee "Race Against the Machine" is one of the best books I have read in a long time. This book repeats much of what is in Race against the Machine, giving it a more positive spin. If you have read the first...
Published 5 months ago by Mark P. McDonald


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121 of 127 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A New Age of Smart Machines, January 13, 2014
In "The Second Machine Age," Brynjolfsson and McAfee argue that as technology advances exponentially and combinatorially it is taking us into an entirely new era. In the future we can expect more of everything, including both tangible goods and digital products and services, at lower and lower prices. They call this "Bounty." There is a dark side as well, however. Machines and computers are increasingly substituting for routine human labor, and technology is a major driver of increased inequality. The authors call this "Spread".

In addition to this book, I'd also strongly suggest reading The Lights in the Tunnel: Automation, Accelerating Technology and the Economy of the Future. That book takes a somewhat longer view and asks where all this will lead in the coming decades. The answers and the proposed solutions are less conventional and more controversial.

The Second Machine Age gives many examples of specific technologies like robots, AI and autonomous cars, and also lots of data showing how the economy is being transformed. The authors also make a strong argument that the way economists measure things, especially in terms of GDP, no longer does a good job of capturing what prosperity really means in the information age.

The book includes suggestions for both individuals and policy makers. Brynjolfsson and McAfee suggest that workers should learn to "race with the machines" (rather than against them), although the advice here isn't very specific beyond getting the best education you can. The authors are hopeful that innovations like massive free online courses (MOOCs) will help more people to make this transition.

There are lots of policy suggestions including reforming education to pay teachers more but also make them accountable, jump starting entrepreneurship, better job matching technologies, investing more in basic scientific research, upgrading national infrastructure, expanding skilled immigration, implementing smarter taxes, expanding the earned income tax credit (EITC), etc. In the long run, the authors also offer lukewarm support for the possibility of a guaranteed income or negative income tax.

Overall, "The Second Machine Age" does a good job of identifying and explaining the forces that will be critical to the economy and job market of future. The book has a basically optimistic tone, but I think a lot of the trends it points out are going to be really bad news for a lot of people.
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48 of 51 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A cogent discussion of where we are and where we're headed, January 26, 2014
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Steven Grimm (Sunnyvale, CA USA) - See all my reviews
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This covers a lot of the same ground as books such as "The Lights in the Tunnel" but in a more pop-academic style: the prose is all very accessible but the information is extensively footnoted and attributed, and there are numerous references to the work of other academics, mostly but not exclusively economists. For anyone who wonders why we're seeing record-high income inequality and jobless recoveries from recessions, this book will clear up a lot of mysteries.

As someone in the technology field myself, I found little to disagree with in the book's treatment of recent and upcoming technological advances, which occupies the first several chapters; the authors have done their homework and have visited enough research labs and company R&D departments to have a very realistic picture of what's just over the horizon. There'll be nothing earth-shattering here for readers who follow technology trends or even who read WIRED magazine, but the book looks at all these things through a somewhat different lens (its impact on human work) than the tech press usually does, and I didn't find myself skimming even when they were covering developments with which I'm already very familiar.

For me, the best stretch of the book was chapters 7 through 11, when the focus moves to the effects of recent technological advances on the economy and on the study of economics itself. The authors build a compelling case that income inequality is much more a consequence of the move to a digital economy than of any particular government policy. I found their take on globalization especially interesting: they view it as a big contributor to the rise in income of the world's top earners, but not for the reasons people usually think. I already tended toward this view, but now I'm further convinced that some of the changes we've seen in wealth distribution are primarily due to deep structural changes in the way the world works and won't be undone by tax policy.

I found the book less convincing in its final chapters, where the authors suggest steps that can be taken to avert widespread unemployment and social disorder. Their short-term prescriptions are sensible enough (basically: take steps to encourage general economic growth) but, as the authors themselves point out, these won't address the underlying problem, identified by Keynes among others, of technological change outpacing the ability of large segments of the workforce to retrain for new jobs. They offer a few examples of systems that make it easier to find occasional part-time work and suggest that these could be expanded in the future, but as far as I can tell their vision would still leave people mostly idle. They are optimistic about the ability of people to continue finding work but I didn't feel it was justified by the picture their text painted.

Still, this is about the best treatment I've found of the question of how technology is likely to affect work over the next couple decades. Highly recommended.
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33 of 38 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Disappointing -- retelling the race against the machine., February 20, 2014
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Brynjolfsson is one of the most forward and provocative thinkers out there about technology and its impact on economics. The book he co-authored with Andy McAfee "Race Against the Machine" is one of the best books I have read in a long time. This book repeats much of what is in Race against the Machine, giving it a more positive spin. If you have read the first book, there really is no reason to read this one. The Second Machine Age rewords much of Brynjolfsson's TED talk of the a similar name. The TED Talk is highly recommended and provides a good overview of what you will find in this book.

Big ideas, like those Brynjolfsson talks about are hard to come by and that is what makes them valuable. I had hoped that this book developed these ideas further, rather than largely restating them. That said if you have never read "Race" this book is just as good as the other.
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11 of 13 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Another book that should have been an article in The Atlantic, March 26, 2014
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Jackal (New Hampshire) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: The Second Machine Age: Work, Progress, and Prosperity in a Time of Brilliant Technologies (Hardcover)
CONTENT
The book's idea is that the the computer/network/digital has now reached a maturity so we will see big changes in the future. They compare with the steam engine (but they should really have compared with electricity if they knew their history). There is a delay until we get big productivity improvement so we can soon expect higher productivity growth due to the Internet. I do not have any quarrels with this basic idea. I agree with the authors that the future is quite bright. Still, I wonder why anyone would agree with the authors mainly by providing a bunch of tech-friendly examples. It is a pretty poor way to forecast the future.

The book goes from being average to bad when it comes to assessing the consequences. The digital future will have many consequences for the world in terms of economy, politics and culture. These authors are not suited to provide that perspective, even though they try. The authors have a lot to say about the US and nothing to say about the world. We get to learn things that American school need to get better and that America needs to welcome talent. I am left wondering if there could me MIT professors without a passport.

If you are familiar with the recent trends, like Apple's Siri, Google's driverless car, then you will not even learn from the examples. I found one example about crowd-sourced innovation very interesting. Whether you find the examples useful or not depends on whether you read about technology. If you do I don't think you will find this book valuable at all.

The material in the book would have been great for a long article in The Atlantic, but it certainly is not sufficient for a book length treatment.

STYLE
The book is very easy to read and contains nothing complicated like diagrams or figures. However, you can expect the book to be full of buzzwords.

The authors like to name drop all through the book. I am paraphrasing: "Our colleague, the world famous, Graznij Huj, has said that.." I don't like argumentation by scaffolding.

Finally, I can't stop repeating what the most famous management guru (also from Boston) has written on the back of the book: "[It] truly helped me see the world of tomorrow through exponential rather than arithmetic lenses. Macro and microscopic frontiers now seem plausible, meaning that learners and teachers alike are in a perpetual mode of catching up with what is possible." I would be ashamed of writing such baloney. It is just the Boston crowd writing book blurbs to help each other endlessly recycle the same ideas. Ideas that once were novel but not in their n-th reincarnation.

This book is a solid two stars.
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12 of 14 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Good but long, January 28, 2014
This review is from: The Second Machine Age: Work, Progress, and Prosperity in a Time of Brilliant Technologies (Hardcover)
In all, a very good and informative read, although the key ideas are not new to readers of Jeremy Rifkin's 1994 book "The End of Work", which, unfortunately, is not mentioned.

I especially liked the argument that "growth" is increasingly inadequately captured by GDP growth, and the point that the present fiscal system is too much labor-oriented. In general, the diagnosis was excellent. The solutions outlined by the authors, however, were much too short-term in my eyes. Especially since the authors stress that we are at an "inflection point" of history, focusing on quick fixes of the status quo (better education etc) is a little myopic. We need to be prepared for a largely laborless society within our lifetimes, which will require huge changes in the distribution of income, as the authors themselves acknowledge. This big transition will take a lot of time, so it must be started now. The authors were too light on outlining the long-term solutions. For example, how are governments going to finance negative income taxes for the legions on un(der)employed, and the necessary investments in science and infrastructure? I would have liked more detailed visions on the solutions for the "android experiment".

Lastly, for a book about technology, the ebook version is funny in that the final 15% consist of a (completely useless because the keywords are unlinked) index; it's also highly misleading as the main text already ends at 67% of the ebook. In general, the book makes the impression that it could have used another round of editing
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Worth Reading But One Key Contradiction, May 29, 2014
By 
Andrew (Pennsylvania, USA) - See all my reviews
This review is from: The Second Machine Age: Work, Progress, and Prosperity in a Time of Brilliant Technologies (Hardcover)
I'm not going to review the entire book, since others have done so already, and quite well. I did find it well worth reading and I have recommended it to several others in person already. I would give the description that occupies most of the book four stars but the policy recommendations at the end a more mixed, two-star rating. In particular, there is one key contradiction I would like to point out, which bothered me as I read it, and has only bothered me more since then. This has to do with education and how we prepare the future work force, which is obviously central to the book's import. I was intrigued to learn from the authors that humans will continue to have an advantage over machines in the following areas: "ideation, large-frame pattern recognition, and the most complex forms of communication." And as they rightly point out, "these skills are not emphasized in most educational environments today" (p. 194). However, we then learn later on of their great enthusiasm for MOOCs and other forms of automated education. Do they not see the glaring contradiction here? It seems to me they have approached the problem of "education" from the wrong (backwards) end. If one looks not at inputs to education, but rather to "outputs" (i.e. the educated students) then it seems quite evident that the very things that automated education such as MOOCs do best are the exact opposite of the things that humans can still do better than machines for the foreseeable future. To put it another way: almost by definition, the things that can be mostly easily standardized and taught with the aid of machines are the very things that we won't need humans to do any more!

Take writing, for example. Can you produce writing that would receive a high rating from a grading machine? Well then why not just have that writing produced by the machines themselves. For the more complex forms of writing, lauded in the book as not subject to machine-ification, it seems that an actual live human being with some expertise in such writing is going to be key to teaching and evaluating students. Or, take "ideation" (which has to do with generating original ideas and combinations of ideas). How to recognize this? It seems to me that to nearly the exact same extent that we can design a machine to recognize or teach ideation, then the machine itself could do the ideation. If this is not possible, then it is hard to see how a machine could teach it, or recognize it.

My take-away from the book is thus quite different from the authors themselves. I found it to be a clear clarion call to reverse nearly all the current trends in "education reform" such as a heavy reliance on standardized tests and MOOCs. If we are going to end up with students who can do the tasks that human will still be needed to do, then we will need to have them taught by humans, and the key learning goals will be precisely the ones that most resist "education reform" as it is now hyped.
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8 of 10 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Connecting the Second Machine Age to the Future of Businsess, January 31, 2014
This review is from: The Second Machine Age: Work, Progress, and Prosperity in a Time of Brilliant Technologies (Hardcover)
I just finished reading this book and I recommend it for leaders everywhere. Its journey offers a view into the potential societal, economic, and business impact of technological advancement in the digital age. The book tells the story of transformative periods of the past and provides a view into the one that lies ahead. Over 200 years ago the first industrial revolution arrived to bend the curve of human history almost ninety degrees. It unfolded over several decades and is regarded as the biggest and fastest transformation in the history of the world. The innovations of the time allowed us to overcome the limitations of muscle power (both animal and human) and ushered in the world's first machine age. Anthropologist Ian Morris famously said that it made a mockery of all that had come before it.

The second industrial revolution was driven by three innovations: electricity, the internal combustion engine, and indoor plumbing. These inventions were so important and far reaching that they took a full 100 years to have their effect. As the authors describe, both industrial revolutions had one thing in common: the technological innovation spread throughout many if not most industries. According to the authors, economists call innovations like these general purpose technologies (GPTs). The consensus on how to recognize these GPTs is that they should be pervasive, improving over time, and able to spawn new innovations. They build the case that digital technologies meet all of these requirements and belong in the same category as the steam engine and electricity. I am a firm believer that this new age will be structurally disruptive and transformative, while as they say, ushering in a new age of innovation and growth.

The foundational pieces of digital technology are in place and the authors believe we are at an inflection point - where computer technology once again bends the curve sharply. They advance the argument that digital progress is doing for our mental power what the steam engine did for our muscle power. As such, mental power is at least as important to social development as muscle power. To extend the argument further, one can conclude that the coming transformative period is likely to be as least as impactful as the industrial revolution - and I personally believe that the second machine age will be more impactful.

Insight from the authors helps us understand the dynamics of our environment. Specifically, the number of potentially valuable building blocks is exploding around the world, and the possibilities are multiplying like never before. They effectively make their point by focusing on key technological advances of the recent past: the driverless car, IBM Watson, Siri, 3D printing, Robots, and others. The authors tell us that not long ago; many believed that computers would never substitute for humans in areas like driving a car. Yet here we are on the brink of accomplishing just that. Communicating with a computer was said to be a long way off - and then came Siri. What we've seen is a small indication of what's to come in the second machine age. The authors give considerable time to past technological challenges and the accelerating pace of resolution. For example, in the area of Robotics many examples of how Robots are overcoming past limitations are provided.

Driverless cars and Siri are not anomalies say the authors, but part of a broader phenomenon. In the past five years, progress on a number of fronts became sudden. Digital started racing ahead; accomplishing things that technology was traditionally incapable of. This is perhaps the best explanation for this current disruptive environment. Digital progress has become sudden after being gradual for so long. While many leaders believe that we are simply in the midst of another passing cycle, digital progress and the structural change it has driven is telling a different story. The book effectively dispels this belief, and perhaps this is why I find the content so refreshing and invaluable. They underscore the critical need for ideation, creativity, and design thinking in this new digital age.

The book discusses policy recommendations with a belief that the best way to tackle labor force challenges is to grow the economy. They focus on education, entrepreneurship, the regulatory environment, support for academic research, infrastructure upgrades, immigration, taxes, and revisiting our view of income. The authors - as they have in the past - talk about the importance of working. In a future where work may not be necessary, there is a real danger that society will decline. They quote Voltaire: "Work saves a man from three great evils: boredom, vice, and need". If for example we moved to a guaranteed universal income (one of the options discussed), need would be taken care of but not the other two.

The authors (and yours truly) are convinced that we are at an inflection point - the early stages of a shift as profound as the Industrial Revolution (if not more so). Most of the gains - as they indicate - are ahead of us. But, significant organizational innovation is required to capture the full benefit of the second machine age. Much like the Industrial Revolutions, the pace of that organizational innovation is painfully slow, and it may take the next generation of managers to lead us there.

I highly recommend this book on a number of levels; a wake-up call at a time where so many choose to ignore the signs. Andrew McAfee and Erik Brynjolfsson take us on a journey into the future. It's impossible to predict what will happen - but it's good to have a view into what might happen. This view is only useful however, if as our authors put it - we use it to shape our destiny. Will the second machine age be regarded as the biggest and fastest transformative period in history? Time will tell.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars ESSENTIAL READING FOR ANYONE WHO WANTS TO PREPARE FOR THE FUTURE, May 9, 2014
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Without question this is by far the most important book I have read in the past ten years.I have read a great many books on the impact of digital technology on civilization and the future of human beings on planet earth but what Erik and Andrew have achieved is to outline the salient issues in a language that non technical people like myself can follow.
Their thesis that the impact of digital technology may well surpass that of the steam engine should be a major awakening call to anyone who has any interest in preparing for the future-for it will be a very different future indeed. From my perspective as a citizen of a developing country I can see that unless urgent and far-reaching measures are implemented by policy makers in countries such as mine to invest in ICT across the entire education system and the economy they will be left desperately behind and a huge digital divide will emerge between the developed and developing worlds. There are encouraging signs ,however, that developing countries may yet be the greatest beneficiaries of the digital dividend judging by that pace of mobile technology adoption in these countries.

This book should be required reading for everyone with any responsibility for the future. Before reading this book I had read `The New Digital Age` by Eric Schmidt and Jared Rosen .While their book is excellent...I have no hesitation in saying that The Second Machine Age is even better!
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Extremely important, April 28, 2014
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This review is from: The Second Machine Age: Work, Progress, and Prosperity in a Time of Brilliant Technologies (Hardcover)
One of the most important books I've read in a long time. The authors are clearly authorities on the subject and have done excellent research in the many periphery fields related to the phenomenon they have dubbed our "second machine age". Almost every implication of our technology-dominated future is covered here; economics, politics, changing societal values, and many others. The central thesis of the book is that the introduction for the first time in our history of technological progress that is (1) exponential, (2) digital and (3) combinatorial will have massive ramifications not only in the long-term but also over the next decade.

The section that I found the most interesting was that on the future of labor demand. As the authors argue, these three characteristics of technological progress will soon wipe out many of the repetition- and pattern-based occupations we associate with the American middle class, as they already have been doing for the last three or so decades. However, due to the exponential nature of the progress, we can expect to see a much more drastic middle class fallout over the next few decades. Due to the nature of their work, most lower-class (i.e., a janitor) and upper-class (i.e., a physician) careers are not as vulnerable as middle-class ones to replacement by automation...yet. And that's a big yet. The truth is, nobody knows what level of sophistication machines are capable of attaining, and it's important to prepare for the worst.

How can we do this? How can we ensure being able to maintain our livelihood in a world increasingly dominated by machines? Actually, the answer is pretty simple. What we need to do is to ask ourselves, "What can I do that a machine can't?" A lot of things, it turns out. At least today, machines cannot write prose, cannot come up with original ideas, cannot easily combine different sources of input to arrive at a novel solution, and cannot easily recognize patterns, among many others. And in a world where data is an almost infinite resource, all of those skills are going to become more vital than ever. Indeed, the key to prosperity in the second machine age, write the authors, will be one's ability to be an "indispensable complement" (pg. 200) to this data -- to make connections between information and to produce something unique in the process. Creativity -- something machines don't have -- will be an extremely important asset to those who know how to leverage it. To prepare for the future, therefore, we must hone this creativity, training ourselves how to read discerningly, write inventively, and explore data for patterns and new insight. In short, we must embrace our humanity if we wish to compete with technology.
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7 of 9 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars The Blindness of the Observer, March 5, 2014
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This review is from: The Second Machine Age: Work, Progress, and Prosperity in a Time of Brilliant Technologies (Hardcover)
This book is a refreshing complement to the literature which is flooding the market regarding the influence of intelligent machines on the chances of humans to get a job and to keep it. The main thesis of Brynjolfsson and McAfee seems to be that from now on a college degree will be necessary not only to get a job but to keep one. However, it also says that even a college degree will not be an insurance that a job will be well-paid or satisfying. This is already bad news, even worse is the message to all those who drop out of school or do not continue some form of life long learning: either no job at all or part time jobs are the bleak future and any way no chance to keep a family with the pay.

Who is responsible for this decline in chances and opportunities? Regarding to the authors of “The Second Machine Age” it is partly the fault of the machines that take over, and partly that the owners of the factories prefer to “employ” machines that are able to work 24/7, neither get sick nor go on holiday, and cause no costs as healthcare insurance or other forms of taxes. This said it seems to be clear that the main view of this book is on the economy since both authors are scientists in Business Development.

There is a problem arising here: Economists are bound by the frames of their trade so to speak. Their view is bounded by some form of “what you see is what you get” and they try to do their research by hindsight whereby the stats and tables may very well be persuading but they are after all just valid for today or yesterday and can disappear tomorrow covered by developments which today are unforeseen. It must not be black swans that appear all of a sudden – it can be the normal development that makes today's knowledge obsolete. In my opinion the authors forget the insight of Gregory Bateson that it is the eye of the observer that makes him see, which means that it is almost impossible to see the whole picture but we always are able to see only the part we are interested in. With all the consequences there are. In a way it is a shame that intelligent and diligent authors do not succeed in developing an alternative to capitalism as we know it today.

It is not until the last chapter that Mr. Brynjolfsson and Mr. McAfee get to the core of the problem when they admit that “the real questions will go beyond economic growth” (p.257) to state that “as more and more work is done by machines, people can spend more time on other activities. Not just leisure and amusements, but also the deeper satisfactions that come from invention and exploration, from creativity and building, and from love, friendship, and community.” (p.257) This scenario reminds one of the leisurely way of life the old Athenians practised when labor was done by slaves and the citizens of Athens were free to stroll on the marketplace, the Agora, discussing philosophical questions.

Finally Mr. Brynjolfsson and Mr. McAfee resume: “In the second machine age, we need to think much more deeply about what it is we really want and what we value, both as individuals and as society”. (p.257)

Since the reason why I bought this book was exactly the hope to get these questions answered I must wait for their next book and I feel a little disappointed that my precious time was used to get some form of snapshot of today's economy instead of a much more valuable discussion of how to tackle the future.

I personally was a little disappointed by the contents of the book because I had expected more proposals and suggestions for solutions of the problems and not so much telling the obvious. By the way, I found it amusing that a dictum of the enlightenment philosopher Voltaire helped to put the whole problem in a nutshell: “Work keeps man from three grave evils: vice, boredom and need”. If this reliance on the healing effects of labor is all we can produce on the rim to the Second Machine age than future indeed seems to be a little bleak. Let's hope that Mr. Brynolfsson and Mr. McAfee will consider solutions to our forthcoming problems in their next book.
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The Second Machine Age: Work, Progress, and Prosperity in a Time of Brilliant Technologies
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