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You Ain't Seen Nothing Yet: Three Forces Shaping the New Machine Age

After several decades of slow and steady, uninspiring progress, ours is now an age of astonishing technical progress. There is a steady flow of examples of science fiction becoming reality - autonomous vehicles, natural language processing, humanoid robotics, speech synthesis, unstructured search. These are products of what ought to be considered the Second Machine Age, says Andrew McAfee, Associate Director of the Center for Digital Business, MIT Sloan School of Management.

And yet, these products are not the crowning achievements of our age. "These are the warm up acts," McAfee says. "We ain’t seen nothing yet."

So what is the reason for so many technical advances happening so suddenly?

In the video below, McAfee, who is the author, along with Erik Brynjolfsson, of The Second Machine Age: Work, Progress, and Prosperity, points to three main reasons. The first is Moore’s Law: digital devices tend to get about twice as good for the same dollar every 18 months. "It’s to the point now, McAfee says, "where the smart phones that we’re carrying around are honestly about as powerful as the supercomputers of a generation ago.  

The second reason is also related to Moore's Law.  Smart phones and other devices are putting out massive amounts of data - so much data, in fact, that "we only have one prefix left in the existing metric system before we run out of metric system to describe how much data there is in the world," McAfee says. After we have run out of yottabytes we will need a new word. Some people in the tech community have proposed hella as the SI-recognized prefix for 10^27. "We’re going to head into the hellabyte era before too much longer," McAfee says.

The final reason for our astonishing progress is that "every innovation becomes a building block for subsequent innovations," McAfee says.  Consider the internal combustion engine. This innovation put hundreds of millions of cars around the world. "Stick a bunch of sensors on that," McAfee says, "combine it with a bunch of map data and other big data from those sensors, apply some pretty serious computational muscle to it and suddenly we’ve now got cars that can drive themselves."

In the video below, McAfee says that while riding in an autonomous car is at first an astonishing experience, what is truly astonishing is how boring it becomes after a while because "the car is such a good driver." Consider that. We're getting so good at converting science fiction into reality that it's becoming commonplace and, in a sense, boring. 

Watch the video here:

Image courtesy of Shutterstock

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