Starting a reading of The Second Machine Age

Second Machine Age1389195493Starting today I’m reading Brynjolfsson and McAfee’s recent book The Second Machine Age (2013; Amazon)*.

I picked this book because it addresses a major challenge for the future of education: not only the general impact of digital technology, but the rise of automation.  We’re looking at the possibility of automation changing the way we teach and learn, plus a transformation to the world students will inhabit.  I’m also leading an email list discussion of SMA for a futurist group, and wanted to share my thoughts in both locations.

To start things off, notes on the first two chapters.

Chapter 1: The Big Stories

The book begins with a huge claim, namely that the digital age we’re in will transform the human race to the same degree as did the industrial revolutions (7-8).

SMA sets the stage for this by referencing Ian Morris’ Why the West Rules – for Now (2010), which makes an unusually quantitative claim for the industrial revolution’s break from human history. And a major break it was, as this chart shows, with human history not showing any real growth until circa 1875, then whoosh:

Ian Morris, chart of all human history

In Why the West Rules Morris builds a fascinating quantitative model for most of human history (!), which shows the influence of simulation games on historiography, among other things.

Digital technologies are going to skew human history to just that kind of wild degree, argues SMA.  It might be hard to see now, but we’re still in early days, the first stage: “[T]he key building blocks are in place for digital technologies to be as important and transformational to society and the economy as the steam engine.” (9)

Chapter 2: The Skills of the New Machines

This chapter tries to outline the scope of new technologies, and ultimately confesses failure.

The authors raise some academic models of the limits of technology, then demolish them with the business world.  They start with Frank Levy & Richard J. Murnane’s The New Division of Labor: How Computers Are Creating the Next Job Market (2005), which argued that technology is good at repetitive, simple tasks, but not complex or variable ones, such as those requiring pattern recognition.  But a variety of new, commercial offerings take care of that second field: speech recognition (Siri), stronger AI (Watson), self-driving cars, and writing articles.  In short, automation will move into tasks both simple and complex, routine and variable.

SMA then upgrades Levy and Murnane via roboticist Hans Moravec, who argues that
“high-level reasoning requires very little computation, but low-level sensorimotor skills require enormous computational resources…”  Put another way:

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 it comes to perception and mobility.

But Brynjolfsson and McAfee then find even this limitation doesn’t hold, as new robotics projects defeat it, such as offerings from Rethink Robotics and doppelbots.

This chapter concludes with a gesture towards 3d printing, then has to give up and set up the next chapters.  Onward to an expanded view of technology and automation in the world as “exponential, digital, and combinatorial” (37).

What do you make of these claims, in my summary so far, or based on your reading of the book itself?

*Publisher’s page seems down this morning.

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7 Responses to Starting a reading of The Second Machine Age

  1. bboessen says:

    Sounds like a provocative read. I’ve been trying to find a book that my colleagues might find similarly provocative enough to read for a faculty (non-disciplinary) reading group. Would you recommend this for such a purpose?

  2. Yes. It’s very accessible – think: business book.

  3. Pingback: The Second Machine Age, week two | Bryan Alexander

  4. mj7blackwell says:

    It’s going to be more profound than the industrial revolution, b/c at the the end of the day in 1850-1970, when your shift was over, you had 12 hours to yourself and your others. Now, the machine will be fully incorporated, and we into the machine, with no boundary or restraint except whatever feeble Amish-style resistance individuals or isolated communities will muster. Our very existence, and its fundamental ontological and epistemological foundations will be largely virtualized and proximalized. Any deeply embodied, experiential world with its particular qualities and idiosyncrasies will have to be defended, intentionally preserved and promulgated.That’s way bigger than the agrarian > industrial shift. My recent Cognitive Climate Change post on just that:

    • Good point, and a fine post.
      The Maker movement seems to be a fine example of your “Any deeply embodied, experiential world with its particular qualities and idiosyncrasies will have to be defended, intentionally preserved and promulgated.”

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