The Second Machine Age

Book Review: The Second Machine Age by Erik Brynjolfsson, Andrew McAfee

Dave Kinnear2-Jobs & Tech, Book Reviews

I found this book to be fascinating since I’ve spent my professional life in and around technology companies. Even today while most of the business leaders I work with are not directly in the technology business, all are using and are affected by technology. So I’m still into technology up to my neck.

The Second Machine age discusses the trends for “Work, Progress and Prosperity in a Time of Brilliant Technologies.” The outlook is both daunting and hopeful, but there will undoubtedly be much pain along the way. For example, we are told that “. . . mental power is at least as important for progress and development—for mastering our physical and intellectual environment to get things done—as physical power. So a vast and unprecedented boost to mental power should be a great boost to humanity, just as the earlier boost to physical power so clearly was.”

This vast boost to mental power will be all the “intelligent machines” which will be aiding us in the office and on the production floor. The authors believe that we are at an inflection point because of computers – we  are entering the second machine age. They further state that “Technological progress is going to leave behind some people, perhaps even a lot of people, as it races ahead.” For those who thought their “knowledge worker jobs” were secure, the author reminds us of IBM’s Watson. True it was “only a Jeopardy game,” but that kind of ability will indeed replace many workers. The authors discuss the vulnerability of knowledge workers by citing the work of researcher Steven Pinker:

As the cognitive scientist Steven Pinker puts it, “The main lesson of thirty-five years of AI research is that the hard problems are easy and the easy problems are hard. . . . As the new generation of intelligent devices appears, it will be the stock analysts and petrochemical engineers and parole board members who are in danger of being replaced by machines. The gardeners, receptionists, and cooks are secure in their jobs for decades to come.”

The authors give us much to think about, some of which many of us have already been mulling over. Tyler Cowen’s two books, The Great Stagnation and Average is Over are great examples of others who are thinking through the future impact of intelligent machines, and Erik Brynjolfsson mentions Cowen’s work. The authors bring together both history and a futurist view of what impact this second machine age will have for the global economy. They note that not only industries increase productivity, but individual firms as well (and I would add, individual workers too):

“It’s important to note that the correlation between computers and productivity is not just evident at the industry level; it occurs at the level of individual firms as well. In work Erik did with Lorin Hitt of the University of Pennsylvania Wharton School, he found that firms that use more IT tend to have higher levels of productivity and faster productivity growth than their industry competitors.”

This excellent, well written, well documented book is a must read for any working age person, especially those of us who are wondering why the “jobless recovery.” All the political haranguing in the world isn’t going to change the situation – we simply need fewer workers. So if you wish to continue working, learn to work with and hug a computer, a robot or some other “intelligent machine” – it’s your only hope!

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