(Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

From driverless cars to 3D printing, inventions that we once only imagined are now reality. M.I.T. experts Andrew McAfee and Erik Brynjolfsson have dubbed this era of growing automation and digitization “The Second Machine Age.” They join us to talk about what these vast and ongoing technological changes mean for our societal and economic futures.

Guests:
Andrew McAfee, principal research scientist at the Center for Digital Business at the MIT Sloan School of Management and co-author of "The Second Machine Age"
Erik Brynjolfsson, professor in the MIT Sloan School of Management, director of the MIT Center for Digital Business and co-author of "The Second Machine Age"

  • Joe

    To put self-driving cars into the same category as 3D printing seems clueless. The former is a toy technology for automotive hipster man boys. With too much cash, narcissism, and a concomitant need for attention they produce dangerous vehicles that will inevitably harm pedestrians, bicyclists, and anything else that gets in the way of these not-so-smart cars. All software has bugs — in this case, bugs that risk to maim and kill. Techno geeks think themselves princes but intellectually they are paupers lacking in self-awareness.

    3D printing on the other hand doesn’t destroy but rather it constructs and liberates. It solves the problem of small-scale one-off production thereby freeing people from the unresponsive corporate “supply chain” and expensive prototype-making shops.

    3D printing has even been used to build homes, although that process is potentially destructive as it risks to destroy vitally needed jobs.

    • Chemist150

      The caveats that you mention may lead to redesign of roads to prevent such things.

      • Joe

        The USA is something like $17 trillion in debt at the federal level alone and you think we can just redo all the roads?

        • Chemist150

          I share your concerns on the cost issue.

          You can see my post to begin to see my viewpoints on the debt.

      • Bob Fry

        There is no need for redesign of roads (not for automated drivers, anyway).

        • Chemist150

          Someone can step out into the street fairly quickly, or a bike (wrongly) coming off a sidewalk faster than a sensor can respond within it’s senor range.

          I think it would go a far ways to reduce traffic collisions but incidentals like pedestrians would be an issue.

          How many bums would there be jumping out in front of automated cars looking for an insurance payday.

          • Bob Fry

            Your premise that sensors and associated software is inferior to human eyes and reactions is untrue. It’s untrue now, and certainly so in 10 years when self-driving cars begin to become commercially available.

            Self-driving cars will still cause (or fail to prevent) the occasional accident and death, but they will happen so less often that human-driven cars will rapidly be restricted, banned, and highly taxed. Society will wonder at past generations that thought humans capable of safely driving.

          • chrisnfolsom

            Also, having cars follow traffic rules – not accelerate on yellow, speed through residential, no preoccupation. There are so many other aspect to take into account such a children or people with “problems” getting gps warning tags to allow for more erratic behavior and such. I personally have issues with such a controlled situation, but I have many issues with the ability of humans in general too.

    • Bob Fry

      What a naive vision and comparison of self-driving cars and 3D printing.

      • Joe

        If you could debate, you would have already.

    • chrisnfolsom

      I agree with some of what you say, but ultimately I have more hope for a self-driving car to be safe then a person – I consider myself lucky every time I get home without being hit – a miracle when taking into account all the distractions, health issues and such we deal with – we already kill 40000 – how many are hurt? That’s 12 people a day in California alone… Put’s many wars to shame – every year!

  • geraldfnord

    Shorter: People who, like the Founders, never worry about sheer survival start to imagine that they have _rights_.

    Once it was considered impossible to have civilisation without serfs or slaves or at least submissive tenants; even after technology supervened the needs for those institutions, the institutions were slow in dying, from social inertia but also because they were so much fun for those at their tops, and the few in the middle had instilled in them the fear of a plunge to a terrible bottom, and the notion that there must always be such.

    It seems likely to me that at one point jobs and bosses were needed to get vital work done. I’m concerned that they are becoming unnecessary but will be retained primarily not for whatever residual necessary work were done thereby but predominantly because they are wonderful machinery for social control—being under a boss’ authority under threat of starvation and exposure and illness is a great way of retaining the blinkered imagination of a serf, and serfs are usually more pleasant constituents and parishoners—and, again, the sheer pleasure of being on top for the those most powerful as things are.

    I haven’t seen the report, but supposedly a think-tank c. 1974 asked the question ‘What caused “The Sixties”?’ and came up with ‘Lack of fear of poverty.’.

  • geraldfnord

    Wm Gibson improved on that quote with ‘The future is already here — it’s just not very evenly distributed.’

    Coöperation:
    The Italian version of “The Internationale” includes the goal:

    E la macchina sia alleata,
    non nemica ai lavorator.

    (‘And the machine will be the ally, not the enemy, of the worker. ‘)

    • Joe

      The lower that the cost of production goes because of automation, the fewer workers are needed. The less work and income, the fewer purchases. The fewer purchases then the less production and therefore the less profits.

      There is a segment of the 1% who want to simply kill off the masses of people, e.g. by starting new wars or using a man-made virus, but a better solution would be to eliminate money… as you see in Star Trek.

  • William – SF

    How are we not, or why are we not, building a better society with technology? Google wants to bring us driver-less cars, meanwhile homelessness increases, middle class living disappears and the rich get richer?

    What’s the point? Which is more important – driver-less cars to eliminate death or injury but ignore middle class living and homelessness? Come-on Google.

    Talk about the economic consequences!
    Does anyone see where this is all headed?

    If anyone thinks technology can’t replace any job, they aren’t learning from history or looking beyond today.

    • Bob Fry

      Google, being a corporation, has one legal imperative: to make profit for its owners. You can’t ask Google, or any other corporation, to do anything significantly beyond that. Instead, if you want the middle class saved, the poor comforted, the homeless housed, you must change the laws.

      With mass, practical AI around the corner, I think American-style capitalism must finally change.

      • Joe

        Corporations exist only because society says can exist. If they act like vandals or thieves or rabid dogs, their charters should be revoked and their assets seized.

        • Chinchilla man

          but with more money than most governments capitalism alone will only increase disparity without some sort of some artificial value placed on the human work.

          • Joe

            We seem to be heading for a Rollerball-like scenario where corporations become governments… unless we can prevent that.
            Really money needs to be eliminated.
            By the way every iPhone is made by human hands, not robots.

          • $2870056

            Human hands made to work like robots, in factories that are more like robot assembly lines, living in dormitory cells, in “cities” that look and function like the inside of a machine…

            Apple and Mr. Jobs, real “visionaries,” huh?

          • Joe

            The visionary thing would be eliminate money and impose a 10 hour work week. Instead we have people working 3 part-time jobs. Or in Silly Con valley, where Social Darwinism reigns and people work 60 hours, which is only symbolic BTW.

          • chrisnfolsom

            While those that control the money/manufacturing take a larger amount of the $$ they can’t even spend and half of america is waiting for the golden shower (or trickle) that will never come as they are not needed by the rich to do anything anymore. I am not against capitalism or wealth, only wealth were it does nothing to improve the human condition.

          • Bob Fry

            Only because Chinese hands are cheaper than robots for the task, at this moment. That will change in just a few years.

          • chrisnfolsom

            Yes, but do you destroy everything for a few years while you utilize a new resource you know will change? Disruptive technologies are great, but are disruptive lives?

      • William – SF

        I agree — corporations exist to make money — and I agree, capitalism must finally change.

        • chrisnfolsom

          You can’t change capitalism – it is what it is, but how we integrate capitalism into our society has to change – I know semantics, but after back and forth with conservatives I have to make it.. They also see “Socialism” as a bad word although we all like and enjoy “socialistic” aspects of our government – whether at the national, state, country, city, neighborhood or family level.

          Capitalism has it’s place as part of the solutions – the problem is that we live in a dynamic environment – with many external forces so the balance that works today will NOT work tomorrow and our current government cannot react – we need to change how we operate, react, plan and move forward and discuss without sound bites and personal attacks to distort the message and influence “the masses”. But can we?

  • Chinchilla man

    he didn’t answer the question about building a better society for middle class. These two seem so entrenched in there subject that they fail to see the wrest of us have been given more complicated lives with no pay out.

    • William – SF

      Exactly … forest and trees… geez!

    • Figjam_US

      …that is not the case – if humans are anything, we are adaptable but we need help in adapting to the new economy just as our forefathers needed help adapting to the first machine-age.

      • William – SF

        Sure, until you/your-friends/your parents/… job is replaced by technology … look at how fast society is adapting … ask a 40 years old programmer with 20+ years experience how easy it is to adapt — doesn’t matter, he/she is unwanted, roadkill.

        Ponder this: consider what kind of economy you want, then make technology match that…

        • Figjam_US

          Luckily we live in the US where you can adapt – but we also live in the real world where no one is owed anything. If one wants to remain roadkill there is not much one can do – however instead of playing the victim one can look to new opportunities.

      • chrisnfolsom

        You cannot compare the changes today to any changes in the past – there were wars, there was urbanization, but most were agrarian – things were not that easy in the past, but you didn’t see entire careers come and go in one generation as you do now – especially jobs you had to train for, or were highly skilled. A few years ago they said the average person would have to work 5 jobs instead of one – and we have done NOTHING to support such a change – crazy, you don’t change an environment without changing how you react to it, or the tools you use to adapt to it.

        • Figjam_US

          …Chris, of course the pace of change today differs from change 80-years ago. However what is the same is “change” and the need to adapt. Indeed the pace has increased but to remain viable/relevant we must learn to adapt quickly – or else we quickly become in-viable/dispensable.

          • chrisnfolsom

            This is not a simple – just do it quicker issue as the implications involve how we deal with how we live day to day, how we educate and such – why have a degree in something – and spend and increasingly insane amount of money if you might change your career in a few years. Perhaps generic degrees or something. We are humans, we have limitations – stress level is one way to measure the success of a society in a given environment – are we adapting well, is our stress level evening out – are we changing what and how we run our lives in ways that are making sense – i just don’t see us acknowledging or spending the time and energy working on this problem – most would just say work harder and it will all work out – perhaps not.

  • gez devlin

    Ray Kurzweil, the futurist, predicts the ‘technological singularity’ will occur around 2o45, when artificial intelligence will have progressed to the point of a greater-than-human intelligence, radically changing civilization, and perhaps human nature, i.e mankind merging with machines, completely, imperceptibly…the rise of robosapien(s).

    • Bob Fry

      Kurzweil for personal reasons is deliberately or inadvertently distorting the technological singularity. What it won’t be is what Kurzweil wants: a first-generation of man/machine that will live happily ever after. Why not?

      Imagine you merge a cat with a machine to create a far superior tabby. The cat will continue to think like a cat: chasing mice, sleeping, and wanting back scratches. It will just be far better capable of doing those things. What you won’t create is a person, which thinks about the meaning of life, eternity, the universe, etc.

      Likewise, if all we do is create a super-human, we’ll continue to think like humans. The first-gen of man/machine (or engineered DNA for superior intelligence, among other traits) will want to create a 2nd-gen superior to itself…and so on. THAT is The Singularity. It will produce a species as different to us, as we are to the tabby-cat…or a mouse…or a bacteria.

      • Clara

        What will these technologies do for solving the problem of continuous war? Syria? Sudan? Israel and Palestine?

        • chrisnfolsom

          Remember that Star Trek “A Taste of Armageddon” episode where the computer calculated the casualties and the people in the area walking into incinerators to make it happen – it was considered more humane then actually bombing and hurting people……

  • $2870056

    TO YOUR “GUESTS”: There may not be an economic law that says an enlarging ‘pie’ has to be shared.

    There certainly is human nature that holds the principle of sharing quite high. No machine or your plan will diminish that principle.

    Inducements for business to automate even more? No thanks. My neighbor will always be more important than some damn machine.

    • Figjam_US

      I don’t think the point of advancement is to diminish the “value” of any human – we humans do that well enough. I think the point is that educational institutions need to be proactive in preparing the human population to adapt to these coming changes so that we all remain “viable” in the future.

  • Chemist150

    Though I am concerned about the mega companies controlling too much and in particular the internet, I wish people would consider the money supply more when tossing vitriol around about the successful vs. the unsuccessful.

    When it comes down to it, being able to move up the career ladder is based on money supply which helps determine employment and thus determines possible wage increases. The gaps that we’re experiencing now are a direct result of policies played out after the Reagan era. The debt is sucking the internal money supply out.

    Machines taking your jobs are not going to make this worse, it’ll allow us to do more things than before and with the appropriate economic structure, everyone can benefit. Quit fighting the wrong fight.

    • Joe

      Watch the documentaries by Bill Still to understand the money supply.

      Or check out the Creature from Jeckyl Island.

      • Chemist150

        I’m not a fan of TV teaching me complex issues.

        I find them to usually be propaganda rather than truly understood by the presenter.

        • chrisnfolsom

          That all depends on the source – we can’t all site in a lecture hall. The problem with TV is all the other CRAP on it. As a medium who can argue with Hubble pictures in 65″ HD – although now my telescope is obsolete 😉

      • Robert Thomas

        Don’t poke the bear.

  • Drew Wright

    Think it’s important to reiterate the example of the chess teams with computers, that the best integration is putting machines as an addition to the process for best results. I had an instance this week returning something to Amazon, received an automated message that didn’t satisfy me, and within seconds was connected to a live person on the phone that solved the situation immediately in an easy way that reaffirmed the need for the human touch

    • chrisnfolsom

      Unfortunately Amazon looks at that and and expensive solutions they have to provide, but are working hard to replace – not as a customer service that will always be there for their customers. Looking at services as just expenses as the bean counters do does not take into account lives, careers, families and any sense of certainty, control and “humanity”.

  • Figjam_US

    Technological change is coming whether we are prepared for it or not.
    My question is, what changes are educational
    institutions making to prepare “humans” for these technological advances
    so they will be employable in 2050 and beyond?

  • moth0

    It was an interesting program but it was pretty obvious these two MIT authors have little idea of where the state of the art robotics and computer science is because unfortunately for MIT, it’s happening everywhere except MIT. Where was MIT at the DARPA Challenges?

    The professor mentions 10 years ago teaching self driving cars are far in the future and were impressed by a Google car driving in perfect visibility California highways not to mention the auto-braking which is available in many cars today. They must not have heard about the 2004 and 2005 DARPA Grand Challenges because MIT didn’t do well. Then to name drop Rodney Brooks who is always a great marketer but not great roboticist. The mention Rodney Brook’s Baxter but don’t mention the DARPA Challenge exactly one month ago where a humanoid robots were demonstrating tasks required to rescue humans in Fukushima situations.

    Then you have to ask real questions like if only two top tax preparers get business, that’s bad for the rest of tax preparers, but is that bad for society? Do you know what they call the medical school graduate at the bottom of his class? Doctor. Is it better for society to have more errors or fewer? Again a basic problem known more than 15 years ago is that doctors make mistakes and computers can often diagnose more accurately than doctors. Last week a friend died. He went to his doctor with heart pain and pain radiating down his arm. The doctor said: “Take two of these and call me in the morning.” He didn’t make it to the morning. A by-the-book computer program would send him to the ER immediately and potentially save a life.

    I have no doubt the anesthesiologist’s job could be automated as well. If we can have computer programs controlling fighter planes aeronautics I think computers will do just fine controlling biological systems.

    • chrisnfolsom

      I lost a sister due to a bad diagnosis – among other things… I thing symbiosis is the answer – correlate things. At least driver warning systems before complete driving solutions – they could track the irregularities to tweak their solutions – do it for all new drivers 😉 It is scary to think about all the computers and automation – especially with privacy and such, but we are going there one way or another – we just need to allow for people to have a life too.

  • Guest

    When burger flipping will no longer be a job option? OK. I’m being a little frivolous. In their book, “The Second Machine Age”, Andrew McAffee and Erik Brynjolfsson really nail down the implications of the relentless rise of computing power and its pervasiveness on the job market. We’re already seeing it happen. And things will only get worse. Chapters 8 – 11 of their book tells it as it is. But the authors go off to lala land in the last 4 chapters of their book when they try to make recommendations on how to avoid this dystopian eventuality. The last 4 chapters are a really lame attempt to candy coat a very bitter pill. Still the book is really worth reading.

  • Kelvin Param

    When will burger flipping no longer be a job option? OK. I’m being a little flippant. In their book, “The Second Machine Age”, Andrew McAffee and Erik Brynjolfsson really nail down the implications of the relentless rise of computing power and its pervasiveness on the job market. We’ve already experienced the some of the impact of IT on jobs. And things will only get worse. Chapters 8 – 11 of their book tells it as it is. But the authors go off to lala land in the last 4 chapters of their book when they try to make recommendations on how to avoid this dystopian eventuality. The last 4 chapters are a really lame attempt to candy coat a very bitter pill. Still the book is really worth reading.

  • umbrarchist

    Our “scientists” and “economists” can’t talk about the PLANNED OBSOLESCENCE of the last 50 years and now we have to survive those decades of waste. I have a Linux book from 2001 that mentions the planned obsolescence of computer software. That is one way to survive at someone else’s expense.

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