The Second Machine Age

**HANDOUT IMAGE, MANDATORY CREDIT, NO TRADE, NO SALE**I just finished reading The Second Machine Age: Work, Progress and Prosperity in a Time of Brilliant Technologies by Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee. These are two MIT professors who looked at a topic that I have written about often in this blog – the accelerating speed of everything related to computers and what that might mean for society.

The call it the second machine age and define the first machine age starting with the invention and implementation of the steam engine. That was the invention that created the first industrial revolution and changed the world in myriad ways. They say that we are on the cusp of the same kinds of changes due to everything that is going to come out of the development of computer technology.

This book was preaching to the choir with me and I have talked about a lot of the same trends in this blog. But these guys went out and talked to many of the technology innovators to make sure that what they were seeing was real and so this book is basically an affirmation of the idea that the exponential improvements in computer technology – chip speeds, memory, download speeds, size of components – is going to soon change the world in drastic ways.

We have already seen a lot of changes in our daily lives due to computers and the changes have been very spectacular, from the growth of PCs through a ubiquitous Internet. But the relentless improvements that are being made in the underlying technology due to the doubling of performance every few years is going to result in changes that are almost hard to believe.

Years ago I worked for Control Data, one of the two companies along with Cray, that developed the first supercomputers. What most people don’t realize is that your smart phone has far more computing power than the Cray-1, the best-selling supercomputer of the late 1970s and that machine was huge and required a ton of power to operate and cool.

Most people fail to grasp the nature of exponential growth. If computers and the related technologies double in power / speed / capacity every 18 months, then by 2025 the computers we use will be 64 times more powerful than the ones we use today (which is also true of today compared to 2005). But carry that out 19 years and the computers of 2033 will be over 8,000 times more powerful than those of today. That is a mind-boggling number. And there is no end in sight for this growth. Scientists and engineers have continued to find ways to improve all aspects of computer technology. I just reported last week on a new storage technology developed by IBM that is 100 times more efficient than the best memory today.

It is the sheer power of the computing in the near-future that is going to reshape the world in the same way that the steam engine changed the world a few centuries ago. The authors postulate that while we have all lived through the doubling of computer power for a few decades, the things that computers are capable of today are still within our mental grasp. We are just now starting to see some applications with processing big data that are starting to do things that were unimaginable in the past. For instance, we can sequence your genome in a few minutes now and tell you all sorts of things about your current and future health. Computers will soon be able to drive cars and converse easily in any language and act like the universal translator of Star Trek. Through sheer processing power computers can now enter a new environment and make the same sort of assessment as to what is there as a human. And who knows what they will be able to do in ten or twenty years.

The authors call this a revolution because it’s going to change a lot of paradigms that we are used to. For examples, computers are likely to take over any job that is repetitive in nature, and that doesn’t mean just factory line jobs, but things like writing news articles, analyzing requests form bank loans, handling packages. All sorts of jobs will likely disappear over the next two decades because machines are far more economical than people.

What nobody knows is if there will be new jobs created to replace those missing jobs. The authors think that there will be a period of decades where the replacements won’t happen and that the old worry that robots will replace us will become reality for a lot of people. In the book they cite Eastman Kodak and an example of how this might happen. The whole photo industry with its hundreds of thousands of jobs was displaced in a very short time by digital cameras and finally by online photo sharing services like Instagram. They believe industry after industry will implode as there are better economic alternatives due to computerization.

This book is not looking out at a distant future like at the end of this century, but instead is predicting widespread changes and disruptions to the society starting a decade from now. The book holds forth some exciting possibilities of the things that will be available in our futures. But it also paints a scary picture of the possibility of displacing a large chunk of humanity from the workforce. As a society we need to start thinking about these changes now, because they are going to be here a whole lot sooner than most people think.

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