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Embrace the bot: MIT professors explore a better future through automation in ‘The Second Machine Age’

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A decade ago, MIT professors Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee would have told you that driving a car is something machines just can’t do.

Now the two zoom down Route 101 in a self-driving vehicle, marveling at the mundanity of watching a machine do its work.

It’s another example of how rapidly technology progresses, from smartphones that accurately carry out instructions to 3-D printers that can fabricate nearly anything. The authors’ new book, “The Second Machine Age,” is all about that technological progress and how society should deal with the challenges, disruptions, and opportunities it presents.

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Brynjolfsson and McAfee will be talking about the book at The Brattle Theater in Cambridge Monday night. Tickets are available for $5.

I caught up with them to find out how this era will impact the economy and what it means to have machines carry out work once considered uniquely human.

What is the second machine age, and what’s different about it from what we’ve seen in the past?

Brynjolfsson: The reason we call the book “The Second Machine Age” is because it’s a direct reference to the first machine age, which was the Industrial Revolution. That really set humanity on a new path of much greater progress and prosperity and higher living standards, but it also caused a lot of disruption in how work got done.

In the first machine age, we automated physical power. We unleashed some of the limitations of our muscles. In the second machine age, technology is doing the same thing for cognitive work – for our brains, for our minds.

A big part of this book is technology’s impact on employment. Is it a job killer or creator?

Brynjolfsson: Well, it’s worth keeping in perspective. Remember a couple hundred years ago, upwards of 90 percent of Americans worked on farms and then most of that work became automated and now it’s less than two percent. But all those people didn’t simply become unemployed – technology helped discover new industries people could work in, from the automobile industry to the computer industry. The question going forward is, will we be able to invent and discover new industries at the same pace that technology automates old tasks?

You write in the first chapter of the book that “there’s never been a worse time to be a worker with ‘ordinary’ skills.” Where does the second machine age leave the working class – are they inevitably left behind?

McAfee: Erik and I really want to be careful not to use the word ‘inevitable.’ There’s a string of fatalists out there that say, ‘there’s nothing we can do, the average worker is just going to be swept aside by this wave of technology.’ It’s way too early and way too determinist to say that, so the recommendations in our book are all about how to create an economic environment that provides the most opportunity possible exactly to that median worker you talk about.

For example, if we invested in infrastructure, if we got the right immigration policies in place, if we could make educational reforms, and if we could make the environment easier for entrepreneurship, we think job growth would accelerate a lot and that average worker would be in a much much better place.

Break down some of the recommendations you make in the book. I know they include some pretty far out ideas like negative income tax and basic income – are those things necessary or even possible?

Brynjolfsson: We think they’ll be possible if we change the conversation and get people thinking about it. For example, we’re particularly in favor of the earned income tax credit, which rewards people for working. The reason we want to do that is we recognize there’s a huge amount of value in work above and beyond the income it creates. So instead of taxing it, discouraging work the way our current system does, encouraging work with things like the earned income tax credit.

McAfee: You mentioned these are pretty far out ideas. That’s true right now, and its also true that they seem like these crazy left-wing socialist ideas, but we need to keep in mind things like were actually promoted really heavily by people like Milton Friedman back in the 60s and 70s, and nobody would call him a lefty. These things actually have kind of a long history, and interestingly a bipartisan history. It’s just in the current climate that they appear so crazy.

A big part of the second machine age is that technology is taking over things we used to do ourselves, like driving, or researching. While technology makes the world a more interesting place in some ways, are there other ways it makes our lives a little more boring?

Brynjolfsson: Well it hasn’t been boring for us because as technology automates away some of the more mundane parts of life – and I have to say for me a daily commute is not usually the highlight of my day – I think it leaves more time for us to do interesting things.

One of our positive futures that we call a digital asset [is] where robot slaves take care of a lot of the more mundane work and we have more time for intellectual conversations, friends, entertainment. Just like the ancient Athenians, who unfortunately had human slaves, we could perhaps take care of that kind of drudgery with robots. And I think that’ll be a much more interesting world.

Alyssa Edes is a freelancer for The Hive. Follow her on Twitter @alyssaedes.

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