How to survive our robot overlords

Second Machine Age1389195493This week our reading of Brynjolfsson and McAfee’s The Second Machine Age advances to policy recommendations.  (If you haven’t followed along, here are all of the posts)

Chapter 13: Policy Recommendations

Here the authors focus on the short term, and their primary piece of advice: “For now the best way to tackle our labor force challenges is to grow the economy.” (207)  And they follow through on this score, outlining ways to improve the national (or global) economy: improve schools; boost entrepreneurship; make hiring and finding jobs more efficient; spend more on scientific research; repair infrastructure; try out new forms of taxation.

That’s a curious mix, blending party planks seen on both right and left.

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 Free marketeers and neoliberals should applaud the call for opening up immigration, along with the implicit summons to weaken or end teacher tenure (212; unions are pretty much absent in SMA).  Liberals can appreciate the calls for public works projects, along with a resistance to regressive taxation and recommendation of taxing the rich (227).

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robot_MikeRenlund-cutObviously there’s a strong emphasis on technology throughout, following the book’s focus and technodeterminist stance.

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Chapter 14: Long-Term Recommendations

Now SMA looks up from the near horizon and thinks on a grander scale.  But not before issuing important caveats.

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 The authors don’t see a way of putting the automation genie back in some predigital bottle, nor are they interested in “efforts to come up with fundamental alternatives to capitalism” (231-2).

All right, so what is to be done?  Brynjolfsson and McAfee offer some ideas, hedged and qualified:

  • Try out the minimal national income and/or a negative income tax.
  • Make sure people have jobs of some sort.
  • Watch the peer or sharing economy, which might become big (“Participation in services like TaskRabbit and Airbnb gives people previously unavailable economic opportunities, and it also gives them something to do”, 245).

The chapter concludes on a raft of more daring thoughts (246-7), including

  • Fund a Civilian Conservation Corps-style effort to pay people to “clean up the environment, build infrastructure, and address other public goods”
  • Do the same, but via nonprofits (I’m honestly not sure how that works).
  • Shape government policy “to direct technical change toward machines that augment human ability rather than substitute for it, toward new goods and services and away from labor savings.”
  • “Start a ‘made by humans’ labeling movement”.

Taken together, let me ask two questions about this pair of recommendation chapters.

  1. Which courses of action seem most likely to have beneficial effects?
  2. What recommendations would you offer, that SMA misses?

(photo by Mike Renlund)

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2 Responses to How to survive our robot overlords

  1. Tom Haymes says:

    I don’t think that government policy can “shape technological change” in the manner advocated by SMA. I do, however, think there will be a natural progression in that way and there seems to be an increasing consensus that replicating human behavior and thought patterns – particularly creative blue-sky thinking – in machines is a canard. JCR Licklider made much the same point in 1962 and that is a central thrust of Engelbart’s “Augmenting” argument. I have always thought that a central tenet of Brynolfsson and McAffee’s arguments, going back to Race Against the Machine, has been that humans that doing tasks that are easily replicated by machines (read drudgery) are in the most danger but that so many of our systems seem to be geared toward producing workers best suited for tasks that are repetitive and boring (a legacy of the industrialized education system). In other words, humans also need to learn how to augment machines in order to augment themselves. That’s true symbiosis.

    • We need to race against the machines. That’s one slogan.
      Which gives higher education an enormous challenge. How can we reconfigure our curriculum – and pedagogy – to best prepare students for this post-robotic future?

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