Erik Brynjolfsson

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Computers were going to revolutionize the world, then failed to do so for decades, and then did in fact transform society beyond our wildest imagination. The same could be said for the early years of automobiles and television and smartphones and other tools. 

There is generally an indefinite gestation between the announcement of exciting (and threatening) new technologies and their arrival. Right now academics and analysts are predicting developments in AI and robotics over the next several decades that will result in an automation revolution devastating to the workforce. Productivity numbers, however, aren’t showing that to be the case so far. Time will tell, but we should be formulating plans to counter a potential worst-case scenario.

Two of the thinkers who’ve argued that we’re at a technological tipping point, Andrew McAfee and Erik Brynjolfsson, just conducted an Ask Me Anything at Reddit. A few exchanges follow.


Question:

With all the automation of work why aren’t costs for basic human needs (housing, food, security & education) going down rapidly. Shouldn’t those marginal costs approach zero? What needs to be done to accelerate this decline in costs?

Andrew McAfee:

Costs for food actually have gone down a huge amount, very steadily, since at least 1900. Education remains high cost in large part because it remains low productivity: primary education still has essentially the same student / teacher ratio as a century ago. This means that it suffers from a bad case of Baumol’s cost disease. Housing costs remain high in the most desirable cities because land prices shoot up. In more rural areas housing costs have, I believe, gone down over time, but not as quickly as I would have expected. Construction remains a strangely low productivity industry. I wonder how quickly this will change…

Erik Brynjolfsson:

Technology is advancing rapidly, but implementing new processes, business models and organizations takes much longer. For electricity, it was 30 years before we saw big productivity improvements in factories because core processes weren’t reinvented quickly enough. We will see declines in all those categories. I believe extreme poverty can be solved by 2035 globally. But we need to do more to implement the technologies. That’s a big part of our research agenda.


Question:

Climate change: is there anything more important? What do you think can be done? What of risks to the already most marginalized?

Andrew McAfee:

Of the risks we know about today, I do think climate change is the biggest – mainly because the tail risk is SO big. But I also think we urgently need to deal with income stagnation and the hollowing out of the middle class in the US and other wealthy countries. Not because those people are more important than others on the planet, but because if disenfranchised people in rich countries elect the wrong leaders at this crucial point in time, we could have big global problems.

Question:

If! OK so fast forward to 2017…what now? Thanks!

Erik Brynjolfsson: 

Then we all need organize and work to elect better leaders and leaders that embody our values if we want democracy to work. I see a growing amount energy around these issues.


Question:

How can we close the technological-economic gap in the US? It seems to me that the upper class get access to new technology at a pace that only widens the gap between rich and poor.

Erik Brynjolfsson:

You are right about the growing gap, but I disagree about the diagnosis. Access to many of the core technologies, mainly because of the spread of the Internet, smart phones and mobile telephony is increasingly ubiquitous. But we are not using these technologies to create shares prosperity. Companies have focused on automating a lot of routine work rather than augmenting their workforce with new capabilities. As a society, we need to reinvent education to focus on creativity, interpersonal skills and other strengths of humans relative to machines. As we can do more to make sure everyone is sharing in the benefits our economy creates by policies like an expanded earned income tax credit, that directs more money to our lowest paid workers. In our book, the Second Machine Age, Andy McAfee and I have three chapters devoted to how we can address these challenges as individuals, managers, entrepreneurs, organizers, policymakers and citizens.

Andrew Mcafee:

Even though powerful technologies have become much more affordable over time, a digital divide remains in both access and use. I’m really impressed by the work that Samasource and others are doing to help people in non-affluent communities get access to modern digital technologies, learn how to use them, and learn that they can be gateways to work, jobs, and careers.


Question:

How do you think K-12 and even universities should be preparing youth to adjust to the rapidly changing digital society?

Andrew McAfee: 

Stop emphasizing things (like rote memorization and arithmetic) that computers are already better at. Stop driving creativity out of kids by making them sit still all day and having a pre-determined series of subjects inflicted on them. Stop teaching them to wait for the voice of authority to tell them what to do next. In a word, Montessori (I was a Montessori kid).

Erik Brynjolfsson: 

We need a) to invest more in education, but b) more fundamentally, a reinvention of education at all levels to encourage creativity and interpersonal skills. Those are the skills increasingly valued because machines don’t do them well. Technology can help, but its not a silver bullet. At MIT, we have a lot more team-oriented, projected-oriented classes that solve real problems. I think that is big part of the model going forward.•

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In an excellent Five Books interview, writer Calum Chace suggests a quintet of titles on the topic of Artificial Intelligence, four of which I’ve read. In recommending The Singularity Is Near, he defends the author Ray Kurzweil against charges of techno-quackery, though the futurist’s predictions have grown more desperate and fantastic as he’s aged. It’s not that what he predicts can’t ever be be done, but his timelines seem to me way too aggressive.

Nick Bostrom’s Superintelligence, another choice, is a very academic work, though an important one. Interesting that Bostrom thinks advanced AI is a greater existential threat to humans than even climate change. (I hope I’ve understood the philosopher correctly in that interpretation.) The next book is Martin Ford’s Rise of the Robots, which I enjoyed, but I prefer Chace’s fourth choice, Andrew McAfee and Erik Brynjolfsson’s The Second Machine Age, which covers the same terrain of technological unemployment with, I think, greater rigor and insight. The final suggestion is one I haven’t read, Greg Egan’s sci-fi novel Permutation City, which concerns intelligence uploading and wealth inequality.

An excerpt about Kurzweil:

Question:

Let’s talk more about some of these themes as we go through the books you’ve chosen. The first one on your list is The Singularity is Near, by Ray Kurzweil. He thinks things are moving along pretty quickly, and that a superintelligence might be here soon. 

Calum Chace:

He does. He’s fantastically optimistic. He thinks that in 2029 we will have AGI. And he’s thought that for a long time, he’s been saying it for years. He then thinks we’ll have an intelligence explosion and achieve uploading by 2045. I’ve never been entirely clear what he thinks will happen in the 16 years in between. He probably does have quite detailed ideas, but I don’t think he’s put them to paper. Kurzweil is important because he, more than anybody else, has made people think about these things. He has amazing ideas in his books—like many of the ideas in everybody’s books they’re not completely original to him—but he has been clearly and loudly propounding the idea that we will have AGI soon and that it will create something like utopia. I came across him in 1999 when I read his book, Are We Spiritual Machines? The book I’m suggesting here is The Singularity is Near, published in 2005. The reason why I point people to it is that it’s very rigorous. A lot of people think Kurzweil is a snake-oil salesman or somebody selling a religious dream. I don’t agree. I don’t agree with everything he says and he is very controversial. But his book is very rigorous in setting out a lot of the objections to his ideas and then tackling them. He’s brave, in a way, in tackling everything head-on, he has answers for everything. 

Question:

Can you tell me a bit more about what ‘the singularity’ is and why it’s near?

Calum Chace:

The singularity is borrowed from the world of physics and math where it means an event at which the normal rules break down. The classic example is a black hole. There’s a bit of radiation leakage but basically, if you cross it, you can’t get back out and the laws of physics break down. Applied to human affairs, the singularity is the idea that we will achieve some technological breakthrough. The usual one is AGI. The machine becomes as smart as humans and continues to improve and quickly becomes hundreds, thousands, millions of times smarter than the smartest human. That’s the intelligence explosion. When you have an entity of that level of genius around, things that were previously impossible become possible. We get to an event horizon beyond which the normal rules no longer apply.

I’ve also started using it to refer to a prior event, which is the ‘economic singularity.’ There’s been a lot of talk, in the last few months, about the possibility of technological unemployment. Again, it’s something we don’t know for sure will happen, and we certainly don’t know when. But it may be that AIs—and to some extent their peripherals, robots—will become better at doing any job than a human. Better, and cheaper. When that happens, many or perhaps most of us can no longer work, through no fault of our own. We will need a new type of economy.  It’s really very early days in terms of working out what that means and how to get there. That’s another event that’s like a singularity — in that it’s really hard to see how things will operate at the other side.•

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The new Foreign Affairs issue on automation, which I’ve excerpted several times (here and here and here), would not have been complete without a piece by Andrew McAfee and Erik Brynjolfsson, authors of The Second Machine Age, an excellent book that asks all right questions about the rapid growth of robotics, trying to answer them as well.

In “Will Humans Go the Way of Horses?” the duo wisely points out that regardless of machine progress, we aren’t likely going to become our equine brothers. There’s some chance superintelligence might obliterate humans one day in the very long run, but interpersonal skills, common sense, political will and revolution are some of the tools the authors believe may slow or even mitigate the lower-case calamities on the horizon, keeping us from the stable or glue factory, even if we’re no longer the heart of production. An excerpt:

It’s possible, however, to imagine a “robot dividend” that created more widespread ownership of robots and similar technologies, or at least a portion of the financial benefits they generated. The state of Alaska provides a possible template: courtesy of the Alaska Permanent Fund, which was established in 1976, the great majority of the state’s residents receive a nontrivial amount of capital income every year. A portion of the state’s oil revenues is deposited into the fund, and each October, a dividend from it is given to each eligible resident. In 2014, this dividend was $1,884.

Even if human labor becomes far less necessary overall, people, unlike horses, can choose to prevent themselves from becoming economically irrelevant.


It’s important to note that the amendment to the Alaska state constitution establishing the Permanent Fund passed democratically, by a margin of two to one. That Alaskans chose to give themselves a bonus highlights another critical difference between humans and horses: in many countries today, humans can vote. In other words, people can influence economic outcomes, such as wages and incomes, through the democratic process. This can happen directly, through votes on amendments and referendums, or indirectly, through legislation passed by elected representatives. It is voters, not markets, who are picking the minimum wage, determining the legality of sharing-economy companies such as Uber and Airbnb, and settling many other economic issues.

In the future, it’s not unreasonable to expect people to vote for policies that will help them avoid the economic fate of the horse.•

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Excerpts from a pair of recent Harvard Business Review articles which analyze the increasing insinuation of robots in the workplace. The opening of Walter Frick’s “When Your Boss Wears Metal Pants” examines the emotional connection we quickly make with robots who can feign social cues. In “The Great Decoupling,” Amy Bernstein and Anand Raman discuss technological unemployment, among other topics, with Andrew McAfee and Erik Brynjolfsson, authors of The Second Machine Age.

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From Frick:

At a 2013 robotics conference the MIT researcher Kate Darling invited attendees to play with animatronic toy dinosaurs called Pleos, which are about the size of a Chihuahua. The participants were told to name their robots and interact with them. They quickly learned that their Pleos could communicate: The dinos made it clear through gestures and facial expressions that they liked to be petted and didn’t like to be picked up by the tail. After an hour, Darling gave the participants a break. When they returned, she handed out knives and hatchets and asked them to torture and dismember their Pleos.

Darling was ready for a bit of resistance, but she was surprised by the group’s uniform refusal to harm the robots. Some participants went as far as shielding the Pleos with their bodies so that no one could hurt them. “We respond to social cues from these lifelike machines,” she concluded in a 2013 lecture, “even if we know that they’re not real.”

This insight will shape the next wave of automation. As Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee describe in their book The Second Machine Age, “thinking machines”—from autonomous robots that can quickly learn new tasks on the manufacturing floor to software that can evaluate job applicants or recommend a corporate strategy—are coming to the workplace and may create enormous value for businesses and society.•

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From Bernstein and Raman:

Harvard Business Review:

As the Second Machine Age progresses, will there be any jobs for human beings?

Andrew McAfee:

Yes, because humans are still far superior in three skill areas. One is high-end creativity that generates things like great new business ideas, scientific breakthroughs, novels that grip you, and so on. Technology will only amplify the abilities of people who are good at these things.

The second category is emotion, interpersonal relations, caring, nurturing, coaching, motivating, leading, and so on. Through millions of years of evolution, we’ve gotten good at deciphering other people’s body language…

Eric Brynjolfsson:

…and signals, and finishing people’s sentences. Machines are way behind there.

The third is dexterity, mobility. It’s unbelievably hard to get a robot to walk across a crowded restaurant, bus a table, take the dishes back into the kitchen, put them in the sink without breaking them, and do it all without terrifying the restaurant’s patrons. Sensing and manipulation are hard for robots.

None of those is sacrosanct, though; machines are beginning to make inroads into each of them.

Andrew McAfee:

We’ll continue to see the middle class hollowed out and will see growth at the low and high ends. Really good executives, entrepreneurs, investors, and novelists—they will all reap rewards. Yo-Yo Ma won’t be replaced by a robot anytime soon, but financially, I wouldn’t want to be the world’s 100th-best cellist.•

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Andrew McAfee, co-author with Erik Brynjolfsson of 2014’s great Second Machine Age, recently argued in a Financial Times blog post that the economy’s behavior is puzzling these days. It’s difficult to find fault with that statement.

Inflation was supposed to be soaring by now, but it’s not. Technology was going to make production grow feverishly, but traditional measures don’t suggest that. Job growth and wages were supposed to return to normal once the financial clouds cleared, though that’s been largely a dream deferred. What gives?

In a sequel of sorts to that earlier post, McAfee returns to try to suss out part of the answer, which he feels might be that the new technologies have created an abundance which has suppressed inflation. That seems to be certain feature of the future as 3D printers move to the fore, but has it already happened? And has this plenty made jobs scarcer and suppressed wages? An excerpt:

In a Tweetstorm late last year, venture capitalist Marc Andreessen argued that technological progress might be another important factor driving prices down. He wrote: “While I am a bull on technological progress, it also seems that much of that progress is price deflationary in nature, so even extremely rapid tech progress may not show up in GDP or productivity stats, even as it = higher real standards of living.”

Prof [Larry] Summers shot back quickly, noting: “It is… not clear how one would distinguish deflationary and inflationary progress. The price level reflects the value of goods in terms of money, so it is hard to analyze without thinking about monetary and financial conditions.” This is surely correct, but is Prof Summers being too dismissive of Mr Andreessen’s larger point? Can tech progress be contributing to price declines?

Moore’s law — that computer processing power doubles roughly every two years — has made computers themselves far cheaper. It has also pretty directly led to the shrinkage of industries as diverse as encyclopedias, recorded music, film photography and standalone GPS devices. An intriguing analysis by writer Chris Goodall found that the “UK began to reduce its consumption of physical resources in the early years of the last decade.” Technological progress, which by its nature allows us to do more with less, is a big part of this move past “peak stuff.”

It’s also probably a big part of the reason that corporate profits remain so high, even while overall economic growth stagnates.

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Paul Krugman is continually taken to task for predicting in 1998 that the Internet would be no more important economically than the fax machine by 2005. Culturally, of course, this new medium has been a watershed event. But he had a point on some level: the Internet–and computers, more broadly–still disappoint from a productivity perspective. Either that or all conventional measurements are insufficient to gauge this new machine. At his Financial Times blog, Andrew McAfee, co-author with Erik Brynjolfsson of 2014’s wonderful The Second Machine Age, wonders about the confusing state of contemporary economics. An excerpt:

The economy’s behaviour is puzzling these days. No matter what you think is going on, there are some facts — important ones — that don’t fit your theory well at all, and/or some important things left unexplained.

For example, if you believe that technological progress is reshaping the economy (as Erik and I do) then you’ve got to explain why productivity growth is so low. As Larry Summers pointed out on the first panel, strong labour productivity growth is the first thing you’d expect to see if tech progress really were taking off and reshaping the economy, disrupting industries, hollowing out the middle class, and so on. So why has it been so weak for the past 10 years? Is it because of mismeasurement? William Baumol’s “Cost Disease” (the idea that all the job growth has come in manual, low-productivity sectors)? Or is it that recent tech progress is in fact economically unimpressive, as Robert Gordon and others believe?

If you believe that tech progress has not been that significant, however, you’ve got to explain why labor’s share of income is declining around the world.•

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In a belated London Review of Books assessment of The Second Machine Age and Average Is Over, John Lanchester doesn’t really break new ground in considering Deep Learning and technological unemployment, but in his customarily lucid and impressive prose he crystallizes how quickly AI may remake our lives and labor in the coming decades. Two passages follow: The opening, in which he charts the course of how the power of a supercomputer ended up inside a child’s toy in a few short years; and a sequence about the way automation obviates workers and exacerbates income inequality.

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In 1996, in response to the 1992 Russo-American moratorium on nuclear testing, the US government started a programme called the Accelerated Strategic Computing Initiative. The suspension of testing had created a need to be able to run complex computer simulations of how old weapons were ageing, for safety reasons, and also – it’s a dangerous world out there! – to design new weapons without breaching the terms of the moratorium. To do that, ASCI needed more computing power than could be delivered by any existing machine. Its response was to commission a computer called ASCI Red, designed to be the first supercomputer to process more than one teraflop. A ‘flop’ is a floating point operation, i.e. a calculation involving numbers which include decimal points (these are computationally much more demanding than calculations involving binary ones and zeros). A teraflop is a trillion such calculations per second. Once Red was up and running at full speed, by 1997, it really was a specimen. Its power was such that it could process 1.8 teraflops. That’s 18 followed by 11 zeros. Red continued to be the most powerful supercomputer in the world until about the end of 2000.

I was playing on Red only yesterday – I wasn’t really, but I did have a go on a machine that can process 1.8 teraflops. This Red equivalent is called the PS3: it was launched by Sony in 2005 and went on sale in 2006. Red was only a little smaller than a tennis court, used as much electricity as eight hundred houses, and cost $55 million. The PS3 fits underneath a television, runs off a normal power socket, and you can buy one for under two hundred quid. Within a decade, a computer able to process 1.8 teraflops went from being something that could only be made by the world’s richest government for purposes at the furthest reaches of computational possibility, to something a teenager could reasonably expect to find under the Christmas tree.

The force at work here is a principle known as Moore’s law. This isn’t really a law at all, but rather the extrapolation of an observation made by Gordon Moore, one of the founders of the computer chip company Intel. By 1965, Moore had noticed that silicon chips had for a number of years been getting more powerful, in relation to their price, at a remarkably consistent rate. He published a paper predicting that they would go on doing so ‘for at least ten years’. That might sound mild, but it was, as Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee point out in their fascinating book, The Second Machine Age, actually a very bold statement, since it implied that by 1975, computer chips would be five hundred times more powerful for the same price. ‘Integrated circuits,’ Moore said, would ‘lead to such wonders as home computers – or at least terminals connected to a central computer – automatic controls for automobiles and personal portable communications equipment’. Right on all three. If anything he was too cautious.•

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Note that in this future world, productivity will go up sharply. Productivity is the amount produced per worker per hour. It is the single most important number in determining whether a country is getting richer or poorer. GDP gets more attention, but is often misleading, since other things being equal, GDP goes up when the population goes up: you can have rising GDP and falling living standards if the population is growing. Productivity is a more accurate measure of trends in living standards – or at least, it used to be. In recent decades, however, productivity has become disconnected from pay. The typical worker’s income in the US has barely gone up since 1979, and has actually fallen since 1999, while her productivity has gone up in a nice straightish line. The amount of work done per worker has gone up, but pay hasn’t. This means that the proceeds of increased profitability are accruing to capital rather than to labour. The culprit is not clear, but Brynjolfsson and McAfee argue, persuasively, that the force to blame is increased automation.

That is a worrying trend. Imagine an economy in which the 0.1 per cent own the machines, the rest of the 1 per cent manage their operation, and the 99 per cent either do the remaining scraps of unautomatable work, or are unemployed. That is the world implied by developments in productivity and automation. It is Pikettyworld, in which capital is increasingly triumphant over labour. We get a glimpse of it in those quarterly numbers from Apple, about which my robot colleague wrote so evocatively. Apple’s quarter was the most profitable of any company in history: $74.6 billion in turnover, and $18 billion in profit. Tim Cook, the boss of Apple, said that these numbers are ‘hard to comprehend’. He’s right: it’s hard to process the fact that the company sold 34,000 iPhones every hour for three months. Bravo – though we should think about the trends implied in those figures. For the sake of argument, say that Apple’s achievement is annualised, so their whole year is as much of an improvement on the one before as that quarter was. That would give them $88.9 billion in profits. In 1960, the most profitable company in the world’s biggest economy was General Motors. In today’s money, GM made $7.6 billion that year. It also employed 600,000 people. Today’s most profitable company employs 92,600. So where 600,000 workers would once generate $7.6 billion in profit, now 92,600 generate $89.9 billion, an improvement in profitability per worker of 76.65 times. Remember, this is pure profit for the company’s owners, after all workers have been paid. Capital isn’t just winning against labour: there’s no contest. If it were a boxing match, the referee would stop the fight.•

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The opening of “New World Order,” a Foreign Affairs essay by Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee, authors of The Second Machine Age, and Michael Spence, which astutely examines the new normal and what it will likely bring:

“Recent advances in technology have created an increasingly unified global marketplace for labor and capital. The ability of both to flow to their highest-value uses, regardless of their location, is equalizing their prices across the globe. In recent years, this broad factor-price equalization has benefited nations with abundant low-cost labor and those with access to cheap capital. Some have argued that the current era of rapid technological progress serves labor, and some have argued that it serves capital. What both camps have slighted is the fact that technology is not only integrating existing sources of labor and capital but also creating new ones.

Machines are substituting for more types of human labor than ever before. As they replicate themselves, they are also creating more capital. This means that the real winners of the future will not be the providers of cheap labor or the owners of ordinary capital, both of whom will be increasingly squeezed by automation. Fortune will instead favor a third group: those who can innovate and create new products, services, and business models.

The distribution of income for this creative class typically takes the form of a power law, with a small number of winners capturing most of the rewards and a long tail consisting of the rest of the participants. So in the future, ideas will be the real scarce inputs in the world — scarcer than both labor and capital — and the few who provide good ideas will reap huge rewards. Assuring an acceptable standard of living for the rest and building inclusive economies and societies will become increasingly important challenges in the years to come.”

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We will all be freed from toil, but freed to what? How do you reconcile a free-market economy with a highly automated one? From Angelo Young at IBT Times:

“As the 106,000 contract workers who lost their Nike jobs in the past year can attest, apparel manufacturers have decided that it’s cheaper to invest in technology than to hire even the world’s lowest-paid workers.

The relentless move toward industrial automation is undercutting vulnerable workers around the globe.

For years, China and India offered manufacturers a low-wage workforce. Production recently expanded around Asia to countries like Cambodia, Bangladesh and Vietnam as well.

But now, automation is allowing manufacturing to stop chasing cheap labor altogether. Automated production machines cut costs and immunize manufacturers from the dangers of a labor shortage.

‘I think this is going to accelerate,’ said Erik Brynjolfsson, professor at the MIT Sloan School of Management. ‘What we have is a situation where robots and automation do more and more tasks that are being done by low-wage labor in Asia and elsewhere in the world. People involved in repetitive work are very vulnerable to what’s happening.'”

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Automation will create wealth and foster new industries yet unthought of, but how will that wealth spread and will enough new jobs be created to replace the disappeared ones? My answers are 1) I don’t know and 2) not likely. From “A Mighty Contest” in the Economist:

“Robot-makers see their wares as a way of creating employment, both by allowing companies to make existing products more efficiently and by enabling them to manufacture new things that could not be made in any other way, such as ever more precisely engineered electronics and cars, not to mention films like Gravity. Others fear that their net effect will be to destroy a lot of jobs, and indeed that they may already be doing so. Nick Bloom, an economics professor at Stanford, has seen a big change of heart about such technological unemployment in his discipline recently. The received wisdom used to be that although new technologies put some workers out of jobs, the extra wealth they generated increased consumption and thus created jobs elsewhere. Now many economists are taking the short- to medium-term risk to jobs far more seriously, and some think the potential scale of change may be huge. Mr. Thrun draws a parallel with employment in agriculture, which accounted for almost all jobs in the pre-modern era but has since shrunk to just 2% of the workforce. The advent of robots will have a similar effect, he predicts, but over a much shorter period. Even so, he is sure that human ingenuity will generate new jobs, just as it created vast new industries to counteract the decline in agricultural employment.

Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee, both at MIT, also have high hopes for the long-term effect of robots and similar technologies. But in a recent book, The Second Machine Age, they argue that technological dislocation may create great problems for moderately skilled workers in the coming decades. They reckon that innovation has speeded up a lot in the past few years and will continue at this pace, for three reasons: the exponential growth in computing power; the progressive digitisation of things that people work with, from maps to legal texts to spreadsheets; and the opportunities for innovators to combine an ever-growing stock of things, ideas and processes into ever more new products and services.

Between them, these trends might continue to ‘hollow out’ labour markets in developed countries and, soon enough, developing ones, as more and more jobs requiring medium levels of skill are automated away.”

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The automation of the workforce is good in the long run but difficult until the new normal becomes, well, normal. How can a roboticized economy and a free-market economy coexist? New industries will be created, of course, but there still may be a shortfall in employment. One solution: an economic output tax. From Rachel Emma Silverman at the WSJ:

“Carl Bass, the chief executive of Autodesk, acknowledged that workplace automation has eliminated or reduced many manufacturing jobs, and will continue to do so in the future, leading to major shifts in the labor market. Entire industries, such as trucking, will eventually be disrupted by robotic advances like self-driving cars, he said. (Bass cited the book, The Second Machine Age, by Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee as a source for this robot-heavy scenario.)

But, Bass asked: ‘Are the jobs lost to automation ones that you would want for your children?’ Few parents, he said, dreamed their kids would someday become fuel pumpers or elevator operators, jobs already replaced by automation. In the next 30 years, Bass added, smart machines and robots will outnumber humans on the planet.

Bass presented some outlandish ideas to help societies deal with the structural changes generated by a robot-heavy workforce, including taxing economic output rather than income, or implementing a ‘negative income tax,’ in which governments pay citizens a stipend in order to guarantee a level of income.

‘With our creativity and imagination, we will find harmony with the robots,’ Bass said.”

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I agree with Douglas Hofstadter that today’s AI isn’t true AI because it can’t really think, but the machines we have (and are soon to have) possess an amazing utility. Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee, authors of The Second Machine Age, believe as most do, that the near-term Computer Age will be rocky, but they’re more sanguine about long-term prospects. They see the Google Glass as half full. An excerpt from their new Atlantic piece:

“Today, people with connected smartphones or tablets anywhere in the world have access to many (if not most) of the same communication resources and information that we do while sitting in our offices at MIT. They can search the Web and browse Wikipedia. They can follow online courses, some of them taught by the best in the academic world. They can share their insights on blogs, Facebook, Twitter, and many other services, most of which are free. They can even conduct sophisticated data analyses using cloud resources such as Amazon Web Services and R, an open source application for statistics.13 In short, they can be full contributors in the work of innovation and knowledge creation, taking advantage of what Autodesk CEO Carl Bass calls ‘infinite computing.’

Until quite recently rapid communication, information acquisition, and knowledge sharing, especially over long distances, were essentially limited to the planet’s elite. Now they’re much more democratic and egalitarian, and getting more so all the time. The journalist A. J. Liebling famously remarked that, ‘Freedom of the press is limited to those who own one.’ It is no exaggeration to say that billions of people will soon have a printing press, reference library, school, and computer all at their fingertips.

We believe that this development will boost human progress. We can’t predict exactly what new insights, products, and solutions will arrive in the coming years, but we are fully confident that they’ll be impressive. The second machine age will be characterized by countless instances of machine intelligence and billions of interconnected brains working together to better understand and improve our world. It will make mockery out of all that came before.”

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After a steep decline in manufacturing, the U.S, has an opportunity to drive the future of the sector. But there’s a catch: You and I may not be necessary. The rapid growth of robotics in America may largely close factories to human hands. We’ll be richer in the aggregate, but those riches will not be distributed very much to workers. Good in the long run but not so much now. From Amar Toor at Verge:

“Some see automated manufacturing as a potential boon for the US economy, a way to lure companies back to American soil with the promise of higher productivity and lower labor costs. But others fear that the push could displace the last vestiges of middle-class American manufacturing workers at a time of high unemployment and soaring inequality.

‘The pace and scale of this encroachment into human skills is relatively recent and has profound economic implications,’ MIT economists Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee wrote in their 2011 book Race Against the Machine. In the book, the authors argue that technology has destroyed more American jobs at a faster pace than it’s created new ones, leading to higher unemployment and stagnant median incomes despite higher productivity levels. Although they conclude on an optimistic note, arguing that technological change will yield benefits in the long run, Brynjolfsson and McAfee say its short-term effects could be devastating for American workers.”

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The opening of “The Robots Are Coming,” Gavin Kelly’s smart and sober-minded Guardian piece about the rise of the machines and what that will mean for job markets in automated societies:

“Whether it’s our humdrum reliance on supermarket self-service tills, Siri on our iPhones, the emergence of the drone as a weapon of choice or the impending arrival of the driverless car, intelligent machines are woven into our lives as never before.  

It’s increasingly common, a cliche even, for us to read about the inexorable rise of the robot as the fundamental shift in advanced economies that will transform the nature of work and opportunity within society. The robot is supposedly the spectre threatening the economic security not just of the working poor but also the middle class across mature societies. ‘Be afraid’ is the message: the march of the machine is eating into our jobs, pay rises and children’s prospects. And, according to many experts, we haven’t seen anything yet. 

This is because the power of intelligent machines is growing as their cost collapses. They are doing things reliably now that would have sounded implausible only a few years ago. By the end of the decade, Nissan pledges the driverless car, Amazon promises that electric drones will deliver us packages, Rolls-Royce says that unmanned robo-ships will sail our seas. The expected use of machines for everyday purposes is already giving rise to angst about the nascent problem of ‘robot smog‘ as other people’s machines invade ever more aspects of our personal space.

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