Thursday, May 28, 2015

The race has just begun

As old tasks get automated away, the challenge is for the economy to not only invent new jobs but to equip people with new skills as well. 

One can either marvel the rapidly evolving digital technology or bemoan its dreadful aftermath. The pace with which work of science fiction is becoming a business reality, rapid spread of automation has revolutionized disease diagnosis and transformed online retailing, among many other technological strides. However, the flip side is that payroll processing software, factory automation, computer-controlled machines, automated inventory control and word processing has triggered technological unemployment, pulling millions of people out from the comfort of their jobs. And the digital revolution is just about bracing up for the second machine age. 

Accomplished experts in information systems and economics, Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew MacAfee unfold the reshaping of our lives and economies in the wake of rapidly evolving digital technologies. Spread and efficiency notwithstanding, the authors contend that automation has made humans redundant in many spheres of life. Productivity and profits may have soared but wages are falling and unemployment is rising. As old tasks get automated away, the challenge is for the economy to not only invent new jobs but to equip people with new skills as well. 

Given that the full impact of digital technologies has yet to be felt, the time to act is NOW. Dazzling personal technologies, advanced diagnostic infrastructure and smart communication devices only showcase the limited bounty of digitization. Artificial Intelligence, argue the authors, is now ready to unleash the second machine age. It is a blessing, however, that computers have yet to catch up with humans on ideation, large-frame pattern recognition, and complex communication. Till that happens, and it is unlikely to happen anytime soon, cooks, gardeners, repairmen, carpenters, dentist and maids should live in peace as they are unlikely to be replaced by machines.  

Digitization is creating both possibilities and potential, but ultimately, the future will depend on what choices are made and how prosperity gets shared across the society. Drawing on latest research and up-to-date trends, Brynjolfsson and MacAfee wonder if mankind will reap unprecedented bounty or embrace greater disaster that technology, by default, harbors. The line is thin and the challenge enormous. 

The Second Machine Age is an optimistic take on the future that awaits us. Undoubtedly, artificial intelligence will cut down costs, improve outcomes and make lives better, but only when the organizational transformation would be ready to absorb the full benefits. Left to businesses alone, entrepreneurs and managers will substitute capital for labor for maximizing profits. Unless there are policies to favor inclusion of the workforce in the second machine age, companies like the Foxconn, a Taiwanese multinational electronic company, will continue to purchase robots to work in the company’s factories. 

It is not an either/or scenario but one wherein new collaborations would need to be designed to harness the best of both - brute processing power of the machine and ingenuity of human ideation. Futurists have rightly said that you’ll be paid in the future based on how well you work with robots. It is now getting clear that if humans fail to race with technology; our species will be able to destroy itself. It is one race in which we cannot have fewer winners and more losers. If that were to happen, Arthur Clarke’s prophetic words will come true: ‘The goal of the future is full unemployment, so we can play’.

A terrific book about an exciting future, that is no less scary! 

The Second Machine Age
by Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee
Viva Books/W W Norton
Extent: 306, Price: Rs 995 

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