Machines are rapidly becoming smarter. In 2011, IBM’s Watson supercomputer trounced the top two all-time “Jeopardy” champions. Today, autonomous cars are being operated on American roads. Doctors are using machines to diagnose illnesses and perform surgery.
What’s more, according to MIT professors Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee, the capabilities of intelligent machines will continue to grow rapidly, bringing incredible benefits to humans, as well as serious challenges as society adapts to changing job markets.
Brynjolfsson and McAfee will be in Seattle for a Town Hall appearance Thursday to talk about their new book — “The Second Machine Age: Work, Progress and Prosperity in a Time of Brilliant Technologies.” They recently took time for an interview with The Seattle Times. Here is an edited version of the conversation.
Q: What brought you to write this book?
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Brynjolfsson: We really were confused by some of the things that we were seeing. Technology optimists were telling us how amazing innovation was changing the world. Another group, mostly economists, were showing us all these dismal statistics about median income and employment.
That was a bit of a puzzle for us, so we wanted to try to address it.
McAfee: We kept on hearing either it was the best of times and the worst of times, and we wound up kind of like Charles Dickens — realizing there is both going on.
Q: In the first part of “The Second Machine Age,” you stress the benefits of advances in technology, from diagnosing our diseases to driving our vehicles. But you also note that those advances will take jobs from humans. Will more jobs be created than are lost?
Brynjolfsson: The brutally honest answer is we don’t really know for sure. Technology has always been creating jobs. And it has always been destroying jobs.
In the past 10 years or 15 years, employment growth has been dismal. A big part of that is because of technology. Is that a temporary lull and will we rebound?
I can’t say for sure that it will. It’s possible that this time it is different. The nature of the technology is different than in the past. I am hopeful that entrepreneurs will help invent new jobs, new goods and services, but will they employ more and more people? It’s not an automatic event.
McAfee: The benefits of technological progress are not just job creation. The reason that we tried to stress the bounty is to make sure that our readers are aware that, like the old economists’ joke goes, technological progress is the only free lunch that economists believe in. It improves the quality of our lives in many different ways. We wanted to make sure that message was not lost.
Net job losses are not preordained. There are things that we can do to stimulate economic growth and job growth.
Q: Do you have children and, if so, how are you advising them about choosing careers?
Brynjolfsson: I have three boys — 20, 18 and 13 years old. First and foremost, I tell them to do something they are excited and passionate about.
Going forward, there are always going to be opportunities for people who are really excellent at whatever they do. People who are doing sort of routine work, following instructions, kind of just getting along — they are going to be in more and more competition with machines and robots.
But if you are an outstanding writer or musician or actor or software programmer or manager or salesperson … there will be rich rewards for people in those areas.
But also they are going to have to be flexible because the types of opportunities are changing much more rapidly than they did in the past.
Q: What steps do you recommend that government should take?
McAfee: In our recommendations, what we don’t try to do is say, “Do this and 40,000 jobs will be created.” Our aim instead is to try to put together recommendations about creating an economic environment that will be conducive to growth, to job growth, to entrepreneurship, to the conditions that will lead to good jobs and higher wages.
Brynjolfsson: It seems like our friends in technology and business have been much more aggressive about embracing the second machine age and pushing for innovation. Policymakers haven’t really, I think, caught on to the same extent.
Q: Among the recommendations for dealing with job losses is a negative income tax, which amounts to a basic level of guaranteed income for everyone. Aren’t there some who would see the idea of the negative income tax as socialist?
McAfee: The reason we put in some more really far-out recommendations, like the basic income or negative income tax, is to start steering the conversation in that direction. It’s obviously not going to happen overnight, but when I look back to five years ago I never would’ve predicted that marriage equality or marijuana legalization would have any real traction, yet here we are.
As we point out in the book, these ideas are seen as the children or grandchildren of the far left, but they have really weird pedigree. They have been floated enthusiastically by both left-wing and right-wing economists and their most enthusiastic political supporter was Richard Nixon, of all people.
Brynjolfsson: And their intellectual godfather was Milton Friedman!
But in the book we stress work more than we do handouts. Work solves three great ills: boredom, vice and need. We’re convinced that people are a lot happier if they are involved in productive employment.
Q: What kinds of reactions are you getting from business and government to these ideas?
McAfee: Well, the book is brand new, so we are hoping as word spreads and people start to read it that we will have those kinds of conversations. We are actually optimistic about the business community waking up to these kinds of problems and applying some pressure to Washington. There are definitely things that need to be done at the political level, but this is not a political book.
This is the greatest challenge that our society will face over the next decade and it is not even on the radar screen. As people start paying attention to it, I think we will start coming up with solutions.
Brynjolfsson: We are dismayed by the polarization and the inertia that we see in Washington, like a lot of our colleagues are, but we are not political scientists of any kind so we are not weighing in on ways to fix that particular logjam.
Patrick Marshall is a freelance technology writer in Seattle.