Racing WITH Machines: The Second Machine Age

The role of the human is not to be dispassionate, depersonalized or neutral. It is precisely the emotive traits that are rewarded: the voracious lust for understanding, the enthusiasm for work, the ability to grasp the gist, the empathetic sensitivity to what will attract attention and linger in the mind.

Median income has stagnated in the United States, the story goes, because technological innovation has stagnated. That is not the case, argued MIT's Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee in their much discussed book Race Against The Machine: How the Digital Revolution is Accelerating Innovation, Driving Productivity, and Irreversibly Transforming Employment and the Economy


The problem, according to the authors, is that digital technologies are encroaching on human skills. In industry after industry, science fiction is quickly becoming business reality. In order to survive, humans need to focus on the types of tasks and jobs where they have a comparative advantage over digital labor.

Brynjolfsson and McAfee have now written a follow-up to Race Against the Machines entitled The Second Machine Age: Work, Progress, and Prosperity in a Time of Brilliant Technologies, in which they present a survival guide for individuals and industries that will need to either transform or die.

Andrew McAfee will be in Big Think's studio for an interview this week to answer your questions about human progress and our technological future. Please enter your suggested questions in the comments below and consider these thought-starters.

Brynjolfsson and McAfee note that it should be no surprise that protests broke out across America in the wake of the Great Recession as millions of Americans felt the economy was no longer working for them. From the right, the Tea Party focused on government mismanagement, while on the left, Occupy Wall Street emphasized corruption and abuse in the financial services sector. Brynjolfsson and McAfee conclude, however, that neither of these factors are the primary driver of growing inequality. Instead, they argue, the main driver is "exponential, digital, and combinatorial change in the technology that undergirds our economic system."

It used to be the case that the rising tide of productivity increased everyone's incomes, regardless of their level of education. However, demand for skilled labor began to increase very rapidly while "the lack of demand for unskilled workers meant ever-lower wages for those who continued to compete for low-skill jobs." This is known as skill-biased technical change, or the idea that technology does not affect everyone equally. Indeed, it is biased toward some and against others. 

David Brooks takes Brynjolfsson and McAfee's cue in his column in today's New York Times. According to Brooks, a set of distinctly human skills exists that cannot be outmatched by machines, and this skill set includes creativity, which can be described as

the ability to grasp the essence of one thing, and then the essence of some very different thing, and smash them together to create some entirely new thing...The role of the human is not to be dispassionate, depersonalized or neutral. It is precisely the emotive traits that are rewarded: the voracious lust for understanding, the enthusiasm for work, the ability to grasp the gist, the empathetic sensitivity to what will attract attention and linger in the mind.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock

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