Alter How We Think About Issues of Technological in The Second Machine Age

Did you know a revolution is under way? In recent years, Google’s autonomous cars have logged thousands of miles on American highways and IBM’s Watson trounced the best human Jeopardy! players.
Digital technologies—with hardware, software, and networks at their core—will in the near future diagnose diseases more accurately than doctors can, apply enormous data sets to transform retailing, and accomplish many tasks once considered uniquely human.

In The Second Machine Age MIT’s Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee—two thinkers at the forefront of their field—reveal the forces driving the reinvention of our lives and our economy. As the full impact of digital technologies is felt, we will realize immense bounty in the form of dazzling personal technology, advanced infrastructure, and near-boundless access to the cultural items that enrich our lives.

Amid this bounty will also be wrenching change. Professions of all kinds—from lawyers to truck drivers—will be forever upended. Companies will be forced to transform or die. Recent economic indicators reflect this shift: fewer people are working, and wages are falling even as productivity and profits soar.

Drawing on years of research and up-to-the-minute trends, Brynjolfsson and McAfee identify the best strategies for survival and offer a new path to prosperity. These include revamping education so that it prepares people for the next economy instead of the last one, designing new collaborations that pair brute processing power with human ingenuity, and embracing policies that make sense in a radically transformed landscape.

A fundamentally optimistic book, The Second Machine Age will alter how we think about issues of technological, societal, and economic progress.

The authors mention statistics that make me think that higher education is about to undergo big changes. They quote a study finding that 36% of students learn nothing in college, while the average student increases, by graduation, only from the 50% percentile of freshmen to the 68% percentile.

The second industrial revolution was driven by three innovations: electricity, the internal combustion engine, and indoor plumbing. These inventions were so important and far reaching that they took a full 100 years to have their effect. As the authors describe, both industrial revolutions had one thing in common: the technological innovation spread throughout many if not most industries. According to the authors, economists call innovations like these general purpose technologies (GPTs). The consensus on how to recognize these GPTs is that they should be pervasive, improving over time, and able to spawn new innovations. They build the case that digital technologies meet all of these requirements and belong in the same category as the steam engine and electricity. I am a firm believer that this new age will be structurally disruptive and transformative, while as they say, ushering in a new age of innovation and growth.

The foundational pieces of digital technology are in place and the authors believe we are at an inflection point - where computer technology once again bends the curve sharply. They advance the argument that digital progress is doing for our mental power what the steam engine did for our muscle power. As such, mental power is at least as important to social development as muscle power. To extend the argument further, one can conclude that the coming transformative period is likely to be as least as impactful as the industrial revolution - and I personally believe that the second machine age will be more impactful.

Insight from the authors helps us understand the dynamics of our environment. Specifically, the number of potentially valuable building blocks is exploding around the world, and the possibilities are multiplying like never before. They effectively make their point by focusing on key technological advances of the recent past: the driverless car, IBM Watson, Siri, 3D printing, Robots, and others. The authors tell us that not long ago; many believed that computers would never substitute for humans in areas like driving a car. Yet here we are on the brink of accomplishing just that. Communicating with a computer was said to be a long way off - and then came Siri. What we've seen is a small indication of what's to come in the second machine age. The authors give considerable time to past technological challenges and the accelerating pace of resolution. For example, in the area of Robotics many examples of how Robots are overcoming past limitations are provided.

Like the Industrial Revolution, digitization will bring both innumerable benefits, and problems. The Industrial Revolution brought pollution, digitization will bring economic disruption caused by the reduced need for some kinds of workers. Remember - it was only a few years earlier few thought computers would be able to drive cars and the 2004 DARPA Grand Challenge (a 150-mile course through the Mojave Desert) produced a 'winner' that covered only 7.4 miles before veering off-course and getting stuck.