Why Robots Won't Take Every Job in the World
By Scott Timberg, The Daily Beast
What is technology doing to us? Between the digital skeptics and the wide-eyed utopians sit the authors of The Second Machine Age, two MIT scholars with an interest in consensus and moderation. Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee, both at the university’s Center for Digital Business, realized that things were moving way faster than even they would have predicted. Just as the Industrial Revolution saw machines replacing human brawn, the second machine age sees them replacing our cognitive faculties. These two, whose previous book, Race Against the Machine, took a cautionary look at the way computers and artificial intelligence were making human beings obsolete, now describe themselves as cautiously optimistic. We spoke to McAfee (who calls William Gibson his favorite living science-fiction author) about the new human condition.
The question that runs through your book seems to be, What do human beings do that machines can’t? As recently as a decade ago, the smartest people pursuing that question thought it came down to pattern recognition and “complex communication.” How has it changed since? Are we realizing that it’s not that simple?
That’s absolutely the case. Winning at Jeopardy, driving a car in traffic, understanding what I am saying now and what to give back to me—these are all exercises in pattern recognition and complex communication. And technology has demonstrated that it can do all of these things pretty well right now, and getting better quickly over time. So our old frameworks of what people were sustainably better at, they don’t hold up anymore.
You knew the process was moving quickly, but it’s now a lot faster than even a few years ago.
There’s a great quote from Hemingway about how a man goes broke, gradually, he says, and then suddenly. We’re at the suddenly part now.
Let’s talk about what this will mean for people’s working lives. There’s a long history of people being put out of work by machines, going back to the Industrial Revolution, and then in the 20th century, secretaries, bank tellers, and so on. What’s happening now, and what can we expect over the next decade?
Let me give you three scenarios for what’s happening now. The most conservative one is that this wave of technological displacement is like the one that took people from farm to factory, or from factory to office building. Economists agree that these things have gone on, and they’ve led to a wrenching displacement of a lot of people. What they have not done is led to permanent technological unemployment. So the most conservative scenario is that we’re seeing that move again—it’s a difficult transition, the Great Recession makes it more painful, but we’ll get through this and will end up with a new equilibrium with people and machines working together. And something like full employment.
The second scenario is like the first, but there is a series of shocks instead of one. There’s one in robotics, one in natural language programming, one in automated vehicles, one in 3D printing—the shocks keep coming at us, keep barraging the workforce. And therefore the transitions—which are all individually tough—when they come at us so thick and so fast, it makes the recovery, the reemployment, the reskilling, the retraining—it makes the challenge much, much harder.