Book Review: The Second Machine Age by Brynjolfsson and McAfee

The Seco

As amazing as recent advances in digital technology have been (e.g., driverless cars, a computer beating a champion in Jeapordy!, real-time vocal language translation, etc.), Brynjolfsson and McAfee argue that this is just the tip of the iceberg. These advances will accelerate such that we’ll soon see technologies that seem like they are straight out of science fiction…and we’ll also see technologies that can take over some, if not many, of our jobs. In this book, the authors explore the possible future impact of these advances on the labor market, and they also propose policies that can help address any future impact of such advances.

The book is well-researched and it is also structured well. The authors start with describing the ‘second machine age’.They then explore the concepts of bounty (the incredible increase in the variety of offerings available) and spread (the increasing difference in economic impact across different sectors of society). They then review other impacts of such technologies, and finally conclude with policy proposals for the future.

Even though the authors conclude with optimistic messaging about the future (e.g., we’ll eventually find new jobs where we work with these new machines), the overall theme throughout the book leaves one with an uneasy feeling. They make a compelling case that recent advances in areas such as pattern recognition are enabling machines to now do tasks that we previously felt only humans can perform. And given that this pace of change will only accelerate in the future, one is left with the sense that more and more jobs are at risk of being automated in the future.

A common counter-argument is that the economy will create new jobs. History supports this argument based on our experience from the first machine age – factories eliminated many jobs, but new jobs were soon created to replace these lost jobs. However, the authors note that in the first machine age, muscle power was replaced by machines, but there was still room for new jobs that used intellectual power. However, if in the second machine age jobs requiring intellectual power are replaced, then what types of jobs will replace these lost jobs?

Which jobs will be at lower risk of being replaced? The authors cite an interesting paradox known as ‘Moravec’s Paradox’ which states that ‘contrary to traditional assumptions, high-level reasoning requires very little computation, but low-level sensorimotor skills require enormous computational resources’. Thus, they point out, jobs such as stock analysts and petrochemical engineers are more at risk than jobs such as gardeners, receptionists, and cooks.

Amongst their policy suggestions, it is not a surprise that improving our educational system is one of their main proposals. They make a good argument for moving from the ‘three R’s’ (Reading, ‘Riting’, and ‘Rithmetic’) to focusing on ‘ideatoin, large-frame pattern recognition, and complex forms of communication’ – they argue that these will be the skills required for success in this second machine age.

While the book is quite thorough and thought provoking, there are some areas for improvement. One omission is that they barely touch on the dangers of these new technologies. While driverless cars might possibly in some ways drive ‘better’ than humans, what if there was a software bug that impacted the driving of these cars? Another area which didn’t seem complete was their analysis with regards to how in the US in recent years the average income has been increasing while the median income has been stagnating or even declining. They attribute this solely to technology, while there could be other factors (e.g., increasing global competition) which could have also contributed to this. A third example is that, while the suggestions on education as noted above were quite interesting, they could have spent more time exploring this topic in terms of how specifically education should change to address the new goals noted above.

But, despite these missing items, the book overall still is well worth reading. Recently it seems like every few weeks one reads an article about advances in areas such as robotics, pattern recognition, and artificial intelligence. This book puts these recent advances in context, and makes one realize that these developments will continue at a faster pace, will have a big impact on our future, and that we need to start thinking now about how to prepare ourselves for a future world dominated by this technological advances.

Rating: four out of five stars


One thought on “Book Review: The Second Machine Age by Brynjolfsson and McAfee

  1. Pingback: Book Review: Rise of the Robots by Martin Ford | rohitgupta999

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