Chattering Class

Art Survives the Technological Revolution – But Your Job Might Not

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Historically, people have often tended to glibly talk about modern technology as expanding human experience – enhancing communication across distances, making it possible to have boundless access to information, and creating vast opportunities for innovation.

In their new book, “The Second Machine Age: Work, Progress, and Prosperity in a Time of Brilliant Technologies,” MIT scholars Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee present a counter proposal: that the disruptive technological revolution we are currently experiencing will lead to a shrinking of the occupations and activities which are uniquely human, unable to be done by ever more sophisticated computers.

Dr. Brynjolfsson (or at least we assume it was him and not some advanced artificial intelligence project) talks to Brendan about what he expects to survive – art, creativity, dinner parties – and how society can prepare for and embrace progress.

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Brendan Francis Newnam: It’s time for chattering class. This is the part of the show where we get schooled on a dinner party worthy topic. This week the subject is the second Machine Age, and our expert is Erik Brynjolfsson, the Director of the MIT Center for Digital Business. He and his colleague Andrew McAfee have co-authored a new book called “The Second Machine Age: Work, Progress, and Prosperity in a Time of Brilliant Technologies.”

So, what is the Second Machine Age and will there still be dinner parties?

Erik Brynjolfsson: Well there will definitely be dinner parties. I think there will be more dinner parties than ever. That’s the vision I have of the future.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Fantastic!

Erik Brynjolfsson: Absolutely. There is also going to be a lot of disruption, just as there was in the first Machine Age.

For most of human history there are wars and religious insights and philosophies that rose and fell, but basic human condition didn’t change much at all, whether you look at economics or even population, until something happened around 1775-1800, and that was the Industrial Revolution. In particular, the invention of the steam engine. That set off just an explosion of creativity and economic activity.

We are now in the early stages of what Andrew McAfee and I call the Second Machine Age. The difference is that while the first Machine Age really focused on automated muscle work and bringing more and more physical power – whether it’s the steam engine or the internal combustion engine or electricity – the Second Machine Age is much more about automating and augmenting cognitive work, helping us make decisions or even having machines make better decisions than we can.

Brendan Francis Newnam: So if jobs that involve human muscle are wiped out, and soon many jobs that involve brains will be wiped out, what is going to be left for humans to do?

Erik Brynjolfsson: Well that’s a great question, and I have to be frank and say that I don’t know for sure what the future will be in terms of which jobs are going to remain. Whenever Andy and I look at a job and think “Well that is one that humans will always be able to do,” almost inevitably we run into someone at the MIT Media Lab or in Silicon Valley working on a project exactly to work on that.

But I can tell you that there are some categories that have had growth recently and I suspect will have growth for a continuing amount of time. One big category is anything involving creative work. Computers aren’t very creative, aren’t able to write a great novel or compose a symphony or even create great software.

Brendan Francis Newnam: There’s a great Picasso quote in your book about this topic where he says, “But they’re useless. They can only give answers.”

Erik Brynjolfsson: Exactly, they only give you answers, and going forward in the next 10 years, the people who can ask the right questions are going to be a lot more valuable than people who just follow instructions and give you answers, because that is something that computers are getting better and better at doing.

So over the next decade I think there are opportunities, but it’s going to be a challenge, and although we’ve always been able to create jobs in the past, there’s no set guarantee that those jobs are gonna keep coming in the next 10 years at the same rate.

Brendan Francis Newnam: So is our future gonna be “The Jetsons” or is it gonna be dystopia?

Erik Brynjolfsson: Well, you know, when we wrote this book, we wrote it in part out of confusion, because we heard these two different groups giving radically different views of the future. There were people, you could call them Utopians, who imagined a future where machines solved every problem. A lot of technologists kind of instinctively fall into this camp, and you hear it in Silicon Valley and elsewhere.

But we also heard from a really pessimistic group, which tended to be mostly economists – you know, the so-called ‘dismal science’ – who pointed out that median income is lower now than it was in the 1990’s. That means half the people were poorer now than they were before. Employment is really struggling, and they often had dire predictions for the future as well.

Andy and I were confused. We wanted to try and reconcile these equally correct facts about the world.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Basically it seems like, yes, computers are producing more money, but it’s going to fewer and fewer people.

Erik Brynjolfsson: That’s exactly it. I mean, these two groups kind of yell at each other and say you’re wrong, no you’re wrong – and it turns out that they’re both right about what they’re talking about. And furthermore, there’s a common cause to both of these phenomena, which is rapidly improving technology.

Brendan Francis Newnam: At the end of the book, you make some recommendations about what we can do to ease the disruptions and kind of push us towards a kinder, better future. I think that’s great because a lot of books like this don’t do that. But, you know, some of the things you suggest – investing in infrastructure, negative taxes, paying teachers six-digit salarie s- frankly, considering the current economic and political climate, they seem kind of like fantasy.

Erik Brynjolfsson: Well. I think in this future world we will be a lot more productive, a lot more wealthy, we’ll be able to afford things we couldn’t afford before. In fact, I think in many ways we can’t afford not to do some of the things we describe in the book.

In the first Industrial Revolution, when 90% of Americans were farmers and that went down to now it’s 2%, those people didn’t all become unemployed – because America made a huge investment in primary education. It’s been called the best idea American ever had, and I can’t disagree with that. That investment re-skilled hundreds of millions of people and made it possible for Henry Ford and Steve Jobs and Bill Gates and others to help invent entirely new industries.

That was the combination of technology and public policy and a lot of private efforts. Entrepreneurship and reskilling. We need the same kind of combination going forward, and I’m a mindful optimist, because I think that we will step up to the challenge. The past 10 years have been a warning shot across the bow, but we’re not gonna slow down and we shouldn’t try to slow down technology. We do need to rethink how we organize the economy, and if we step up to that challenge I think we’ll be in good shape.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Last question, you know, you said you’re a mindful optimist, and there’s some reason to be a mindful optimist, but is part of the reason because at MIT you guys have a secret bunker? Or a world that you’ve like bought maybe in South America, like a bunch of acreage where you’re going to go when the robots take over?

Erik Brynjolfsson: No comment. I really can’t say anything about that one way or the other.