My favorite story in Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee's fascinating new book, “The Second Machine Age,” is when the Dutch chess grandmaster Jan Hein Donner was asked how he'd prepare for a chess match against a computer, like IBM's Deep Blue.
Donner replied: “I would bring a hammer.” Donner isn't alone in fantasizing that he'd like to smash some recent advances in software and automation — think self-driving cars, robotic factories and artificially intelligent reservationists — which are not only replacing blue-collar jobs at a faster rate, but now also white-collar skills, even grandmasters!
Something very, very big happened over the past decade. It is being felt in every job, factory and school. My own shorthand is that the world went from “connected to hyperconnected” and, as a result, average is over, because employers now have so much easier, cheaper access to above-average software, automation and cheap genius from abroad. Brynjolfsson and McAfee, both at MIT, offer a more detailed explanation: We are at the start of the Second Machine Age.
The First Machine Age, they argue, was the Industrial Revolution that was born along with the steam engine in the late 1700s. This period was “all about power systems to augment human muscle,” explained McAfee in an interview, “and each successive invention in that age delivered more and more power. But they all required humans to make decisions about them.” Therefore, the inventions of this era actually made human control and labor “more valuable and important.” Labor and machines were complementary.
In the Second Machine Age, though, argues Brynjolfsson, “we are beginning to automate a lot more cognitive tasks, a lot more of the control systems that determine what to use that power for. In many cases today artificially intelligent machines can make better decisions than humans.” So humans and software-driven machines may increasingly be substitutes, not complements. What's making this possible, the authors argue, are three huge technological advances that just reached their tipping points, advances they describe as “exponential, digital and combinatorial.”