February 7th, 2014
09:08 PM ET

Technology? We haven't seen anything yet

Fareed speaks with Erik Brynjolfsson, a professor of management at MIT's Sloan School, and Andrew McAfee, a scientist at the MIT Center for Digital Business, about their book ‘The Second Machine Age.’ Watch the full interview this Sunday at 10 a.m. and 1 p.m. ET on CNN. 

And you think that we are just at the point where these forces are accelerating dramatically, that things that were unthinkable five years ago are now thinkable. You guys went on the driverless car.

Brynjolfsson: Andy and I have been caught off guard by how rapidly the technology is advancing and the changes we've seen, not just in the Google driverless car that we got to ride in. Frankly, 10 years ago, I was telling my student that was an example of something that machines would not be able to do any time soon. I was wrong. I was caught off guard.

But we also see technologies where we can talk to our machines and they understand us, they respond back in a synthesized voice and carry out our instructions. That would have been the stuff of science fiction just a few years ago. Or problem-solving machines, not just IBM's Watson that can play Jeopardy, but related technologies that are doing medical diagnosis, solving legal problems, giving investment advice, answering questions in call centers.

Each of these just is having profound effects on how big the pie is, the economic growth, but also the distribution of wealth.

McAfee:…and the technologists that we talk to say that the things that Eric just mentioned are not the crowning achievements of the digital age. They're the warm-up acts. And we honestly ain't seen nothing yet.

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soundoff (13 Responses)
  1. CZ Henderson

    There is an irony here. It appears computers and robots are better than human at crunching numbers, configuring according to rules, and spewing back data (even in the form of a question). Increasingly, we are seeing computers and robots on the factory floor and even in the operating theater. Robots gather samples from the moon and Mars, from the ocean floor - and they do on-site analysis. In short, machines appear better at STEMs than humans (or they are headed that way).

    So what's left for people? Perhaps the much-abused liberal arts: poetry, art, music, drama. When the trade and scientific skills are limited a few hundred "mechanics," the greater population may find its worth in sensate abilities beyond the realm of machines. In ancient Persia a lowly person skilled at poetry might attain great riches from the sultan. There may yet be pleasing, insightful accomplishments that robots don't threaten.

    February 9, 2014 at 11:37 am | Reply
  2. Roderick Rees

    Professor Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee said some most misleading things. First, computing does not always give the right answer. After an F22 pilot had to be let out by taking a chainsaw to the canopy, the Lockheed spokesman said "There are millions of lines of code in there and you can't check everything". Second, Deep Blue does not play chess, which is an activity of judgment and imagination (would you race an automatic car against a man?). Third, the fixed criteria by which the computer works are always faulty when they deal with the outside world; the criteria are set by humans who do not see the consequences of their choices (think of the Phoenix program in Vietnam, causing large scale torture and murder for little or no benefit). Fourth, all logic has unintended consequences (see the theorems of Godel, and Church, and Post. I could go on, but that's enough for a start.

    February 9, 2014 at 11:44 am | Reply
  3. MC in TX

    The discussion by Brynjolfsson and McAfee with Zakaria is interesting but really does not touch on the bigger picture, which is important. There is a coming "singularity" which will have major consequences for our descendants, Despite our wish to believe otherwise, there is no capability that humans possess that cannot eventually be artificially reproduced. We are rapidly approaching a point where machines will be able to do any task a human can better. It is hard to say precisely when this point will come: maybe as long as 200 years, maybe as little as 100. But it is coming. The question is what happens to our society when we reach this point? Brynjolfsson and McAfee seem to imply we are headed for a utopia but the evidence does not support this. What the past couple of centuries (and particularly the past decade) have shown is that as technology evolves to minimize the need for certain types of manual labor, those at the very top of society improve their position economically and the rest of society loses. Thankfully for all of us so far it has always been the case that as new industries are created there is always a need for human workers to help enable those industries. How does our society function in a world where this is no longer the case?

    February 9, 2014 at 1:31 pm | Reply
    • Tiglath-Pileser

      Read Aldous Huxley's 'Brave New World' and a book by Neil Postman called 'Amusing Ourselves to Death' and you will have your query answered.

      February 9, 2014 at 7:04 pm | Reply
  4. rlcoppedge

    This is nothing new, but it's good to hear the discussion. Simply consider some key industries, such as transportation (automated cars/trucks are 5-15 years away at best), or light manufacturing (3d Printing). Both industries employ relatively low-skilled but decent wage folks. The employers are going to be able save a huge chunk of $ (which is the job of the owners, unfortunately) by employing these new technologies. The employers save money, their customers will get the product sooner and probably for less $. The middle man suffers, but in a way that the free market system, such as it is, would wildly endorse. I can't tell if we're heading for an ultimate golden age (where people work on what they want to work on and don't have to want for key things) or a horrible have versus have not world.

    February 9, 2014 at 2:27 pm | Reply
  5. Richard D. Erlich

    To reinforce ricoppedge's point on the lack of novelty here: These folk do need to cite Kurt Vonnegut's 1952 first novel PLAYER PIANO and the large body of research and speculation in the late 1940s through the 1970s on what was called at the time "automation" and its inevitable/potential social effects. Vonnegut et al. were well away that the First Industrial Revolution replaced muscle power with machines and the Second was replacing routine physical and clerical work with machines. Most industries could run with some maintenance people, the machines, and Managers and Engineers. A question was whether a Third (Industrial?) Revolution would replace the Managers and Engineers and pretty much everyone else. What jobs would be left for ordinary, moderately competent, not-all-that-innovative people to do — i.e., the great majority of us statistically mediocre people?

    We're still dealing with that question, but that's "still dealing"; it ain't like we haven't been warned.

    February 9, 2014 at 2:41 pm | Reply
  6. John King

    I have not yet read the book but it seems to be a progress report on an old theme, my first introduction to the topic was Bill Joy's (the CTO, SUN Microsystems & co-inventor of BSD UNIX) article in WIRED Magazine, "Why the future doesn't need us" about 25 years ago. The fascinating question is considering the raison d'état for this incredible innovation is the creation, production and distribution of goods and services at a massive scale. If the consumers of these goods and services in large part won't contribute economic value in the future, what is the quid pro quo economic production incentive? It seems to me at least three possibilities exist:
    1. Consumption evaporates, production collapses, chaos ensues – e.g.The Middle Ages😦
    2. Humans do what machines can't – Art, Music, Philosophy, Ethics! – The Renaissance (but for how many people)
    3. Genetic Engineering takes hold and we are assimilated (resistance is futile) OMG

    Hopefully these brilliant professors have postulated a more pallitable outcome.

    I guess I'll have to read the book.

    February 9, 2014 at 4:26 pm | Reply
  7. Tiglath-Pileser

    We really need to get over our worship of technology, there are no more "astounding inventions". Nearly all of the great new technologies are simply improvements, new uses or extrapolations of old ones. Cars that drive themselves, an extrapolation of automation that everyone knew was coming. It is not the invention of the wheel, telephone or even television, simply an extension of automation.
    The only thing that worries me is that a book written in 1931 by Aldous Huxley is spot on.

    February 9, 2014 at 6:59 pm | Reply
  8. michael

    the real point in their book is their analysis of the impact of this escalating technological change on productivity, growth, jobs and income inequality. we now face the real prospect of 'jobless growth'. that is, growth through productivity improvement will not ensure employment of itself. the positive nexus between productivity and jobs that existed for the last two hundred years was ruptured in the late 1990s. it is arguable that it will not return in the face of the accelerating rate of technological change in this 'second machine age'.

    February 22, 2014 at 1:41 am | Reply

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