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The Second Machine Age: Work, Progress, and Prosperity in a Time of Brilliant Technologies Paperback – January 25, 2016
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- Steven Pearlstein, The Washington Post
- Clive Crook, Bloomberg
- Andrew Leonard, Salon
“My favorite book so far of 2014. Both hopeful…and realistic.”
- Joshua Kim, Inside Higher Education
“Maddeningly reasonable and readable.”
- Thomas Claburn, InformationWeek
“Offers important insights into how digital technologies are transforming our economy, a process that has only just begun.”
- Reid Hoffman, cofounder/chairman of LinkedIn and coauthor of the #1 New York Times bestseller The Start-up of You
“Brynjolfsson and McAfee are right: we are on the cusp of a dramatically different world brought on by technology. The Second Machine Age is the book for anyone who wants to thrive in it. I’ll encourage all of our entrepreneurs to read it, and hope their competitors don’t.”
- Marc Andreessen, cofounder of Netscape and Andreessen Horowitz
“Technology is overturning the world’s economies, and The Second Machine Age is the best explanation of this revolution yet written.”
- Kevin Kelly, senior maverick for Wired and author of What Technology Wants
“What globalization was to the economic debates of the late 20th century, technological change is to the early 21st century. Long after the financial crisis and great recession have receded, the issues raised in this important book will be central to our lives and our politics.”
- Lawrence H. Summers, Charles W. Eliot University Professor at Harvard University
“In this optimistic book Brynjolfsson and McAfee clearly explain the bounty that awaits us from intelligent machines. But they argue that creating the bounty depends on finding ways to race with the machine rather than racing against the machine. That means people like me need to build machines that are easy to master and use. Ultimately, those who embrace the new technologies will be the ones who benefit most.”
- Rodney Brooks, chairman and CTO of Rethink Robotics, Inc
About the Author
Erik Brynjolfsson is the director of the MIT Initiative on the Digital Economy and Schussel Family Professor of Management Science at the MIT Sloan School. He is the author of several best-selling books with co-author Andrew McAfee, and one of the world’s most cited scholars in information systems and economics.
Andrew McAfee is the co-director of the MIT Initiative on the Digital Economy and co-author of the best-selling The Second Machine Age and Machine, Platform, Crowd: Harnessing Our Digital Future. He and co-author Erik Brynjolfsson are the only people named to both the Thinkers 50 list of the world’s top management thinkers and the Politico 50 group of people transforming American politics.
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Towards the last quarter of the 17th century, there was profound change. The population of the world grew exponentially, making the graph of demographics look suddenly right angled, as it grew from a half to seven billion. The cause of this change began with the Scottish inventor and engineer, James Watt and his refinement of the steam engine. This allowed people to achieve more than their limited muscle power was capable of, and to generate enormous quantities of energy that could be harnessed. The result was factories and mass production, railways and mass transportation, and more. This led to life, as we know it.
This remarkable achievement started to change everything. How we work, who works, where we live, how we live. How much we earn and how we earn, how many people live on the planet and where they live.
This book, The Second Machine Age, shows how we are changing the world in ways more profound that what has taken place from the 18th century until now. Everything you do is changing. How you do it, ischanging. The implications are exciting, the possibilities are motivating, and some implications are nothing short of worrying.
The thrust behind the “second machine age” is the computer, dubbed by Time Magazine in 1982, as the machine of the year. However, it was not the computer that did it, but what has been achieved after the computer. One hundred years ago, a computer was an employee’s job title, only much later replaced by a machine.
What the steam engine and its like did for muscle power, the digital advances resulting from the computer are doing for mental power. This mental power will be no less important for humanity than the physical power of the steam engine.
This book covers three broad conclusions regarding the implications of this mental power.
The first conclusion is that computer hardware, software, and networks are building blocks for digital technologies that will be “as important and transformational to society and the economy as the steam engine.”
Levy and Murnane, in their 2004 book, “The New Division of Labor,” identified the tasks that cannot be computerized and that will remain in the domain of human work. Into this category was driving, which has no fix pattern and so was best left to humans.
In 2012, the authors drove in a Chauffeur, Google’s driverless car and part ofa fleet of cars that has travelled hundreds of thousands of miles without anyone driving. In all this time it has had only two accidents, one caused by a human-driven car that drove into a Chauffeur at a red traffic light, and one when a Chauffeur was driven by a person.
This is only one example of many where a computer with sophisticated software outperformed a person. Similar, previously human tasks are performed by advanced internet communications technology. Into this category fits factory work previously the province of people.
There still remains much work that has not been computerised, (let me not say cannot be!) such as the work of “entrepreneurs, CEOs, scientists, nurses, restaurant busboys, or many other types of workers.”
“Self-driving cars went from being the stuff of science fiction to on-the-road reality in a few short years,” explains the authors, Brynjolfsson and McAfee.
The second conclusion of digital technology is that its consequences will be profoundly beneficial.
IBM and their partners, who include Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center and the Cleveland Clinic, are building “Dr. Watson,” a computer with Artificial Intelligence that will assist doctors to make better diagnoses. A doctor would need read 160 hours every week simply keep up with the latest medical information relevant to his field. Dr. Watson can be fed all this information in a much shorter time and can help thousands of doctors in multiple geographies.
The third conclusion of the book is of concern. While a Roomba (self-administered vacuum cleaner,) can clean a room, it cannot sort out the magazines on the coffee table. The role for housekeepers is secure.
However, when work can be performed more efficiently and cheaper by robots than by people, there will be less need for some kinds of workers. Many jobs, even very high levels ones that rely on sophisticated thinking patterns will be able to be performed by computers with sophisticated software.
The resulting era will require employees with special skills and the right education capable of using technology to create value. The corollary of this is that there has never been a worse time to have skills that are capable of being replaced by a computer.
This particular cause of concern will probably be mitigated in the long term. The first machine age created child labour and the air pollution associated with the steam engine. Child labour no longer exists in the UK, and London air is cleaner now than at any time since the late 1500s.
This fascinating book, filled with insight, examples and challenges, is essential reading for everyone. It both exhilarates with potential and warns.
This is the most important book I read this year.
Readability Light ---+- Serious
Insights High +---- Low
Practical High ---+- Low
*Ian Mann of Gateways consults internationally on leadership and strategy and is the author of Strategy that Works.
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.
Top international reviews
The summary is simple. The digital revolution is every bit as important as the previous industrial revolution, the one that was all to do with the steam engine and electricity. Those who deny this must consider the evidence. Technology is at the moment truly racing ahead and has started to do things that a short ten years ago genuine friends of the digital revolution considered impossible. The three buzzwords are "exponential," "digital" and "combinatorial."
I did not totally buy this line of argumentation when I read the "Race Against the Machine," but here it's argued a lot better and I must say I was convinced.
"Exponential" is all about how computer power doubles every 18 months. For the last 30 years it has seemed like Moore's Law only has ten years left in it based on what we know about physics, materials etc. and yet human ingenuity has found a way to carry on. Presented with evidence of the above, I've had to concede that the authors have a point and it's silly to bet against exponential growth of computer power. Just when it looks like we've hit some hard limit in the laws of Physics or the science of materials we've always found a way to carry on calculating faster. Which of course means it's a matter of time before computers will be able to do absolutely everything to do with seeing, recognizing etc. that they can't already do. I'm sold.
"Digital" is a big deal too. The idea here is the digitally encoded information (i) ain't going anywhere and (ii) does not get used up. If I use a gallon of oil, that's a gallon of oil that's not available to you. Not so with a song that's saved in 0s and 1s or a book or a beautiful picture. We can share, and we can share it forever.
"Combinatorial" comes to the rescue of those who fear their limited physical existence cannot keep up with the exponential growth of computer power. It's alright if a computer can perform tasks better than you and keeps getting even better because there's one thing that can be faster than exponential growth and that's combinatorial growth. So people who can combine things and can command computer power can combine it all to keep up with the machine. So for example a bunch of OK chess players who have very strong computers at their disposal will beat the world's best computer or the world's best chessmaster. More to the point, there are tons of technologies out there, the value these days is in using more than one at once. The example of a traffic app is given that not only uses good maps and the GPS infrastructure, but leverages the power of the network established by its users' mobile phones (another technology), "network" being the key word here.
So it's fascinating and convincing stuff.
From there the book moves on to the bit that I found to be the true contribution of "Race Against the Machine." New fancy words have been unleashed upon us here: "Bounty" and "Spread"
"Bounty" is the massive benefit of machines allowing us to do more with less, like for example sharing billions of pictures almost for free, or keeping in touch with all of our friends for absolutely free, or taking an MIT class from the comfort of your bedroom in Cameroon without paying MIT tuition, or keeping track of where your daughter's hanging out at three in the morning for a fiver a month--not sure at all about this one! "Spread" refers to the fact that if you were employed in a routine job you're either unemployed or you won't be employed for long, because your job will be taken over by a machine.
And the usual roster of winners and losers is rolled out. So if you play for Manchester United it's fantastic if people can follow you (and pay to watch you) in East Asia, but it's less fun if you are a good but not ManU-level player out in East Asia because nobody's going to come watch. Bounty and Spread in one example here, what with everybody being able to enjoy watching ManU all while Rooney is eating all other football players' lunch. He deserves it, many will argue, but what about them?
So I got myself a comfy chair to read the chapter where the authors explain that, rather than the laundry list of explanations (like for example the overleveraging of the lower middle class or the greed of Goldman Sachs or the "global glut of savings" and so on) the current recession / depression / whatever you want to call it is caused by the machines that have replaced everybody who used to do repetitive mental work. That was surely going to be the most fascinating bit of the book.
But, in the words of Quentin Tarantino, I could not find it because it wasn't there. They took that bit out.
Pity, because it was my favourite bit of the first book. They just mention that it wasn't globalization whodunit because (i) China is losing manufacturing employment as fast as we are and (ii) the most precarious jobs on earth are probably the ones we exported (for example) to India, as the back office / documentation / call center work we sent over there is sooner rather than later going to be done by machines.
But beyond crossing out globalization as a culprit, the authors have neglected the Great Depression MKII part that I was most looking forward to. I really wanted to hear something along the lines of "well, you might be a damn fool, Athan, but your kids, if they are like other kids on the planet, are totally on top of this exponential, digital and combinatorial revolution. Here's a bunch of stuff other kids are doing with their time, you just hang in there bud, do what you can to pass on the baton and watch them little ones and everybody else thrive and kiss this depression goodbye."
But no, I looked hard and that's nowhere to be found in the book.
Instead, there's a very tired list of "long term recommendations" that you could have torn out of Blinder's book. Heck, you could have torn them out of Jeff Sachs's book. Like, for example "Teach our Children Well" and "Restart Startups" and the good-old "Rebuild Infrastructure." Tax proposals galore too, some of them genuinely outlandish. WHAT ON EARTH? Infrastructure! Everybody and his mom knows the stat about how many of our bridges are in bad shape. And please somebody tell me what the connection is between tax and technology. None of those tech companies have ever paid any tax, their IP lives in an Irish / Bermudan / Martian tax enclave, last I checked.
I think they handed over the book to a grad student halfway through. Perhaps they left it to a computer. Now, there's a thought.
But the first 100 pages were damn good, so I'll be very generous and give "The Second Machine Age" four stars...
Beware any seminar where the speaker continually refers to passages in this book. It appears that there is a new sector for people who have been urged to regurgitate (verbatim) most of this content in lieu of any actual experience in the industry.
Great as a reference book though.
It's certainly an important book for the times, bringing together all the many strands that cause those queasy fears that many experience as comforting familiarities fall away. But why should you read it? Because as with the first industrial revolution, there will be winners and losers (in the 18th century, the losers were all those poor field workers who had to uproot to work in the dark satanic mills. The winners were those who seized control of the emerging technologies). If you're planning your future, your career, or thinking ahead for your children's sake, there is vital information contained within. Tip: don't become an accountant, a driving instructor, or do any task that involves repeating a process. And really, truly, do not give up on education - go as far as you can.
The winners will be people who have ideas, who can create, whether in business or art. They'll set up their own businesses, get hired as freelancers, and be handsomely rewarded. The losers will be anyone who offers their labour, who performs a task for the benefit of others. Read the book to find out why this is true, and what is means for society.
The authors make their case with an easy-reading style backed up with lots of solid evidence, but it loses a point, possibly unfairly, for an issue that is probably beyond their control. Two chapters are devoted to recommendations, short term and long term, that can help us get the best out of the massive change that is coming to the world in the next ten years. But they are generally far too broad brush. That's because, as the authors point out, it's so hard to predict how fast these changes are going to come: the rate of disruption is accelerating and the churn is getting wilder because one small innovation influences a great many more.
The book is not wholly comforting - the pressures on society are going to be huge - although it could be. The message is plain. We can't resist these changes. They're coming whether we like them or not, and if we try to fight them, all our energy will be wasted in a futile endeavour. But if we try to manage that change we can minimise the destructive elements and maximise the vast potential benefits for society as a whole. All we need to do is to pay attention now.
Brynjolfsson has been at the forefront of research in this area for around 20years, he writes clearly and thinks originally. Most economic "opinions" which prevail are actually undermined by Brynjolfsson's analysis.
One caveat: his conclusions and speculations are hugely uncertain. One thing we know about technological innovation is that its effects are significantly unpredictable. I am least convinced by the idea that there will be fewer jobs left for humans to do. History repeatedly undermines this hypothesis. Technology and rising national incomes create jobs and "needs" that we never could have imagined. Just one example: 20yrs ago did anyone predict the job-category "you tuber"?
There are some nice comparisons with previous books on the subject and a discussion of why their current views have evolved in that context.
Full of great insight and history as well as the authors thoughts on the future and some interesting opinion from them as to how things should proceed.
Really enjoyed the section on negative income tax....sounds like a plan!