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“Our generation is witnessing one of the most important one-time events in history: the emergence of real artificial intelligence.”
Erik Brynjolfsson, director of MIT’s Center for Digital Business
The evolution of the thinking machine
Image: Bob O'Connor
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The evolution of the thinking machine

April 2014

Artificial intelligence will enable digital devices to supplant whole sections of today’s workforce, says MIT’s digital business professor Erik Brynjolfsson.

The advances we’ve seen in the past few years — cars that drive themselves, useful humanoid robots, speech recognition, 3D printers — are not the crowning achievements of the computer era. They are the warm-up act.

How can we be sure? Because the exponential, digital and recombinant forces of the second machine age have made it possible for humanity to create two of the most important one-time events of our history: our generation has the good fortune to witness the emergence of really useful artificial intelligence (AI) and the connection of most of the people in the world via a common digital network, two amazing events that will transform the planet’s economics.

Thanks to modern AI we now have machines that can complete cognitive tasks, machines that have escaped their narrow confines and started to demonstrate broad abilities in pattern recognition, complex communication and other domains that used to be exclusively human. We have also recently seen great progress in natural language processing, machine learning, computer vision, simultaneous localization and mapping, and many other fundamental challenges of the discipline.

We are going to see artificial intelligence do more and more, and as this happens costs will come down, outcomes will improve, and our lives will improve — at least, many of them (see The economics challenges sparked by the digital era).
New division of labor

The fact is that as computers get more powerful, companies have less need for certain types of workers. And in the second machine age we’re going to have a new set of abundant resources and a new set of scarce resources.

There’s no better time to be somebody who’s got specialist skills. The people who have talent or exceptional skills are those that organizations around the world will be interested in — they can now reach a global audience more easily than ever before.

But there’s probably no worse time in history to be a worker with only average skills, who has nothing special to offer. Going forward, basic, undifferentiated labor is going to be under even more pressure and associated wages will be pushed down. There was a role for that kind of worker in the 19th and 20th century, but not so much in the 21st.Huge transformation

So we are facing some huge challenges. When you look back to the first Industrial Revolution, you see a huge transformation of society. At its start, 80%-90% of Americans, for instance, worked in agriculture; by 1900 that was down to 42%; and today it’s less than 2%.

Now all those people didn’t simply become unemployed. Instead they were redeployed: entrepreneurs like Henry Ford and later Bill Gates and Steve Jobs helped invent entirely new industries with new types of jobs that were unimaginable in the 1800s.

So when we look at the second machine age, there is a real question about what people will be doing, because now we’re not simply automating and eliminating muscle work as the steam engine and its descendants did, but many cognitive tasks.

Thankfully, as in the past, we’ve always been able to find new things to move on to.

The Second Machine Age: Work, progress, and prosperity in a time of brilliant technologiesby Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee is out now.

First published
April 2014
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About: Erik Brynjolfsson
MIT Sloan School of Management professor and director of MIT’s Center for Digital Business, Erik Brynjolfsson focuses on the economic impact of IT. He is co-author of The Second Machine Age.

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