Earlier this summer I completed The Second Machine Age by Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee, both from MIT. The authors, who have collaborated before, make the case that the first “machine age” can be traced to the steam engine, which was an inflection point for the replacement of labor with technology. After that invention, the connection between workers and physical labor changed dramatically. The beginning of the first machine age was a harbinger of rapid technological progress to come, with associated productivity gains and job displacement.
We are now living in a second machine age where technology leaps are outpacing our ability to predict. Moore’s law may be bumping up into physical limitations, but new paths of innovation around physical barriers open up new paths of “exponential” growth.
Here’s a metaphor to put exponential growth into perspective. Many years ago, a man did a great service for an emperor, and as payment he humbly asked for some rice to feed his family. He suggested to the emperor that they take a chess board, put one grain of rice on the first square, and double it for each square thereafter, until the entire 64 square board is filled. This is a great way to illustrate what happens in a world of exponential growth. What seems as a simple exercise would, if taken to the end, result in the final square of the chessboard containing over eighteen quintillion grains of rice, which would be larger than Mount Everest.
How are things “exponentially” growing and changing? “Moravec’s Paradox” is an adage first written by roboticist Hans Moravec, who once observed, “It is comparatively easy to make computers exhibit adult-level performance on intelligence tests or playing checkers, and difficult or impossible to give them the skills of a one-year-old when is comes to perception and mobility”.
It was only a few years ago that the idea of self-driving cars was considered to be a bridge too far due to the requirements for pattern recognition that stymied computers, and yet Google’s self-driving cars have now logged hundreds of accident-free miles on California roads.
* As a consumer of information, and as someone who’s interested in the future, I find it tiresome to hear authors say “these changes present us with a number of unanswered questions” without making the effort to answer them. That is not a charge I can level at these authors, who explore tough questions and suggest answers.
* As importantly, they demonstrate that the questions are real, and the need for answers are approaching faster than we anticipate. What happens when a large percentage of the population doesn’t have work? Even if you pay them a basic income, most of us recognize the wisdom in Voltaire’s words: “Work saves a man from three great evils: boredom, vice, and need.”
An empowering thought on all of this comes from Elbert Hubbard: “One machine can do the work of fifty ordinary men. No machine can do the work of one extraordinary man.”
Ready or not, here comes the future.