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The second machine age will make everything you know obsolete

Rob Enderle | Nov. 10, 2014
One of the most interesting talks at this week's Dell World was a panel with Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian and Andrew McAfee and Eric Brynjolfsson, authors of The Second Machine Age. It was a fascinating -- and frightening -- talk about what's to come.

As you can imagine, McAfee and Brynjolfsson spent a lot of time on robots. One focal point was Baxter, a low-cost robot designed to work side-by-side with human workers. Anyone doing a job can program Baxter by walking it through the paces. It's only the tip of the iceberg — there are robotic cheetahs running around (I imagine) terrorizing MIT students, and Intel just gave a bunch of kids an award for a robotic drone that you wear on your wrist.  

Where the authors argued was on Elon Musk's comment that we're creating robotic demons. McAfee argued that spreadsheets are pretty smart, and he isn't worried about a spreadsheet coming to kill him. (At that point I got worried.) Brynjolfsson, on the other hand, pointed out that the danger is doing something accidentally. For instance, if you hook a learning machine to the old video game Battlezone and tell it to maximize its score, it'll be unbeatable in a short period of time. I can easily imagine someone getting lazy with some new robotic weapons system (remember Colossus: the Forbin Project?) and having that end badly.

EIEIO: Advanced Economics, Not Basic Agriculture

Robotic Demons aside, the pair really talked about another Industrial Revolution that will dramatically change the job market and shift economies. They argued that the U.S. government is out to lunch about ensuring that we humans benefit from this change.

The reason we're unprepared, they said, is because we need to relearn Economics 101. The acronym they use is EIEIO, which even I could remember. It stands for Education, Infrastructure, Entrepreneurship, Immigration and Original Research. You need smart people, you need the infrastructure to let them be productive; you need people who can build new companies around ideas; you need to encourage smart, creative people to live in your country; and you need original research as the foundation of the economic event.  

McAfee and Brynjolfsson argue that, though the government has focused on education, aging infrastructure is starting to fail, regulations kill small businesses, a lack of immigration reform blocks smart people from coming here, and funding for original research has been cut. They say the U.S. government seems to want the U.S. to become a Third World country once the world pivots to the new economic models. We'll likely be overwhelmed with the unemployed. (Even with robots doing most of our work, we'll still create a very different kind of nation — and McAfee and Brynjolfsson glossed over the fact that the last Industrial Revolution killed millions of people.)  

We're moving quickly into a new age and robotics, increasingly intelligent systems, and other advances will result in a level of change we can't fully anticipate. The advice from McAfee and Brynjolfsson, which I agree with, is to learn to be flexible, be willing to retrain, and to make sure you instill in your kids the need to study subjects that let them be flexible regarding both their education and their eventual job. This flexibility and willingness to embrace change will undoubtedly separate those who survive in this new world from those who don't.  

The Second Machine Age is worth a read. As for me, I'm thinking the survivalists don't look that crazy anymore.


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