By Karl Arnold Belser
26 June 2014

The Second Machine Age by Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee shows that exponential growth in digital technology, that is automation, artificial intelligence and networking, will be a dominant factor in the future of humanity.

The first part of the book (Chapters 1 to 6) shows that machines will replace many jobs that human beings are doing today, even jobs that require intelligence. Further, this technology will probably result in abundance in material things as well as digital items that will be available at low or no cost.

The middle part of the book (Chapters 7 to 11) discusses the implications for employment as jobs get automated. One conclusion is that the people that will be employed either have jobs that cannot be automated or ones in which human guidance is needed to get the best results. For example computer chess playing programs can beat any human opponent but humans with computer assistance can beat any machine alone. So the people who prosper will be either those who own the machines or those who have high skills in man-machine interaction. Since intelligent automation is happening very rapidly, it appears that ordinary people will have difficulty adapting such that they have employment.

The last part of the book (chapters 12 to 15) discusses what public policy might mitigate the transition to a man-machine society. The implication is that there might be hope, but the authors acknowledge that huge differences in wealth have in past history resulted in the rich owning the machines and having resources to educate their children to fill the lucrative man-machine jobs. Everyone else gets left out. See Why Nations Fail by Acemoglu and Robinson.

The Second Machine Age  is worth reading and I cannot adequately summarize the careful thinking done by the authors. There are many considerations and possibilities that may or may not occur.

The one gripe that I have with the book is that the authors summarily dismiss (chapter 5) Robert Gordon and his 
article Is US Economic Growth Over? and Tyler Cowen's book The Great Stagnation: How America Ate the Low Hanging Fruit ... .  It is true that the exponential growth of digital technologies will bring many benefits to mankind. However, it will not create resources that have been used up like water, minerals, oil, climate and food supply. This latter is what Cowen refers to as the low hanging fruit. It takes energy to run modern society and it takes water food, and housing to provide for the world's population.

The world is, I think, approaching a crisis as I stated in my first blog entry Reading List for Managing an Uncertain Future. I have previously discussed some of these issues in my posts Demand for Goods, Global GrowthThe Permanent Slump Debate and
Technology Limitations;

The second machine age appears to be an occurrence that will make life much more difficult for many people in addition to the environmental pressures that have reared their ugly heads.  I completed the Great Courses series called Development of European Civilization, which shows that similar issues have happened in the past and that the resolution of the problems have been tumultuous. I don't expect it to be different this time.
Last updated June 27, 2014
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