Technological progress offers enormous benefits to all of us, writes Andrew McAfee Read more
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Technological progress offers enormous benefits to all of us, writes Andrew McAfee Read more
When the headlines are dominated by heart-rending events such as refugee crises and terrifying ones like mass shootings, it can be difficult to carry on the holiday tradition of giving thanks. It becomes easier, though, when we get past the immediacy of the news and examine some important trends in the world.
We recently learnt, for example, that global greenhouse gas emissions are likely to decrease in 2015, thanks in large part to a slowdown in Chinese growth and to faster-than-expected progress with clean technologies such as wind and solar. This downturn might be reversed in coming years, especially if India and other developing countries continue to grow along their current high emissions trajectory, but it’s still good news. As I wrote here before, it’s part of a wonderful trend visible across many environmental indicators. In important ways, we are learning to tread more lightly on our planet. Read more
How bad is a life without work?
I’ve been asked this question a lot lately. It’s becoming pretty clear that the two forces of globalisation and technological progress are reshaping economies and societies, especially in advanced economies, and that these effects are being felt most strongly right in the centre of the workforce — across the individuals and families that make up what Americans call the middle class. Lots of the traditional jobs for these people are going away in the rich world, and wages for remaining workers are pretty stagnant.
The fact that the middle class is getting hollowed out in country after country is rightly of concern to a lot of people. A large, stable, prosperous middle class is important for civil society; most informed observers agree that it supports inclusiveness, tolerance, democracy and many other good things. It’s also a great engine of overall demand for an economy — lots of moderately affluent households buy lots of things. Read more
I conduct phone interviews using Skype because it’s easy to record decent-quality audio that way, but it turns out that the program’s video features also come in handy.
When I was interviewing Chris Anderson, founder and chief executive of drone maker 3DRobotics, he said “I’m going to turn on my video just for a second so you can see what I’m looking at here.” He showed me a golden cylinder that looked like a very fat lipstick case and said “That is a gyro sensor. It is mechanical, it cost $10,000, it was made by some very talented ladies in a factory and hand-wound, et cetera. That’s one axis. On our drones we have, let me think about this, we have 24 of these. We have 24 sensors like this [on our current drones]. That would have been $10,000 each. That would have $240,000 dollars of sensors, and by the way, it would be the size of a refrigerator. Instead, we have a tiny little chip or a few tiny little chips that cost three dollars and are almost invisible. Simply the switch to the MEM [micro-electric mechanical] sensors was the big enabler.” Read more
In his important recent essay “The Return of Nature”, Jesse Ausubel of Rockefeller University highlights a wonderful phenomenon: we humans have been giving land back to nature, since we no longer need it for our purposes. Even though the world’s population continues to increase, we have in all likelihood past the peak for farmland; the number of acres under cultivation globally has been slowly declining, and will continue to do so. Forest loss also appears to have been reversed in recent years, and our use of natural resources such aluminium, copper and timber is decreasing over time. Read more
Even though a quinoa-based vegetarian bowl is not my idea of the ideal workday lunch, I’m excited to check out the restaurant Eatsa the next time I’m in San Francisco. Because there aren’t any people working there.
To be more precise, not any visible ones. There’s a staff of five or six cooks assembling the bowls, but they work completely behind the scenes. The typical customer interacts with zero Eatsa employees on a typical visit: she orders and pays via a smartphone or tablet, then picks up her food from a cubbyhole displaying her name. Prices are low, and initial reviews are quite good.
So is this just an updated version of the old automats, with iPads replacing coin slots, or is it something more? There are indications that Eatsa’s founders want it to be the start of something legitimately new: a close to 100 per cent automated restaurant. Food preparation there is already highly optimised and standardised, and it’s probably not a coincidence that the location’s first general manager had a background in robotics. Read more
What is going on these days between some of the world’s largest tech companies and their users is either the biggest bargain of the modern era, or the biggest scam.
What no one denies is that some of these companies have grown to have enormous reach. Nearly 1bn people, or around one-seventh of the world’s population, visit Facebook every day. Every day, Google processes about 3.5bn searches, 500m tweets are sent, and so on.
It’s also the case that the great majority of end users give these companies no money whatsoever. Because my email archive is now so large, I pay Google a bit every year to maintain it, but everything else I do with the company’s tools — conduct searches, watch YouTube videos, keep my calendar, compose documents such as this one, and so on — I and everyone else to do without parting with any cash. The same holds for all of us who post or view content on Facebook, send messages around the world with WhatsApp, make Pinterest boards, express ourselves with Tumblr or Medium or do many, many other things. The list of zero-cost tech tools seems endless, and it represents an amazing bargain. I can’t think of another time when so many received so much without opening their wallets at all. Read more
I recently got invited to speak at Brooklyn 1.0, a conference of “design, people and technology” to be held this autumn in the borough that is New York City’s hipster hothouse. I accepted because preparing for the talk would force me to think more about an important topic: what’s up with the kids today? Read more
Why hasn’t Finland’s economy benefited more in recent years from its extremely skilled workers? The country has certainly faced some strong headwinds lately, from the demise of Nokia to neighbour Russia’s woes to an inability unilaterally to devalue its currency (since it switched fully to the euro in 2002). But why has the advanced Finnish workforce — ranked very near the top among OECD members in literary, numeracy, and “problem solving in technology-rich environments” — not helped it more?
Why haven’t these workers been smoothly redeployed into more promising opportunities and sectors? How could it be that “Finland is in very, very deep trouble,” according to a former Swedish finance minister brought in to review the situation? Many informed observers would pick “highly skilled workers” as the first thing a country should strive for to ensure economic growth, but it’s clearly not a sufficient condition. Are there better ones? Read more
Ian Beacock’s recent essay in the digital magazine Aeon praising the views of the late English historian Arnold Toynbee reminded me of a puzzlement I’ve often felt when reading critiques of technological progress. I get puzzled because the words “humanism” or “humanist” very often get deployed in these critiques (here are a few examples), and I’m honestly not sure what they mean in this context.
“Humanism” was originally a label for Renaissance-era scholarship that moved past the Medieval period’s focus on the nature of the divine. However, modern usages have drifted far from this base. As far as I can tell, when used in discussions about modern technology “humanist” means about three different things. Read more
A group I’m part of made a strong claim recently. A number of executives, entrepreneurs, and investors from the high tech industries, along with some economists (who tend to believe that technological progress is the only free lunch around) got together to draft an “open letter on the digital economy”.
One of our main goals with it was to advocate a set of policies to deal with the fact that, as we wrote, “the benefits of [the current] technological surge have been very uneven”. I’ve written about these policies before; they include education and immigration reform, infrastructure investment, and greater support for basic research. Read more
Keynes reminded us that when the facts change, we need to change our opinions. His words have been much in my head lately because the discussion about tech progress and its implications has heated up recently. Throughout May, for example, the US National Public Radio show Planet Money has been presenting episodes about technology and the future of work. The finale of the series was a point-counterpoint on the topic between me and a fellow MITer, economist David Autor.
I always learn a lot from reading David’s work and listening to him, so this was a treat. When I spoke, I acknowledged that people had been warning about technological unemployment for more than 200 years, and that events had time and time again proven them wrong: job opportunities and wages grew steadily, even as powerful new technologies appeared and populations expanded.
I tried to explain why I think this time might be different. I highlighted that digital technologies have in recent years made rapid, deep, and unprecedented incursions into humans’ skills and abilities — everything from natural language processing to pattern recognition to coming up with good new ideas to mastering a new task — and that they’re just getting warmed up. Over the next 20-40 years, which was the timeframe I was looking at, I predicted that vehicles would be driving themselves; mines, factories, and farms would be largely automated; and that we’d have an extraordinarily abundance economy that didn’t have anything like the same bottomless thirst for labour that the Industrial Era did. Read more
Labor productivity actually dropped over the past two quarters in the US, which at first glance makes absolutely no sense. Did workers get worse at their jobs over these months? Did they just lose sight, economy-wide, of what they were supposed to be doing?
Negative productivity growth seems absurd. It certainly sounds inconsistent with the story Erik Brynjolfsson and I (and many others) have been telling of a “second machine age” of great technological progress. As Marshall Steinbaum put it earlier this year, “If either the techno-optimists or the techno-pessimists are right [about job loss due to tech progress], then we should see a major positive impact on worker productivity.” But Lawrence Summers points out that “there’s already a lot of disemployment but not a lot of productivity growth”. Productivity growth has been pretty low for a decade now around the world. Read more
Technology is not driving an economy-wide drop in prices at present, but let’s not rule the possibility out just yet. Because something pretty strange is going on: inflation rates in both the US and eurozone have been trending downwards over the past couple years from levels that were already low by historical standards, even as expansionary monetary policies such as quantitative easing were enacted. In the first three months of 2015, in fact, prices were flat or dropping in both regions (although “core” inflation, which excludes more volatile energy and food prices, remained positive). Japanese inflation has also been falling recently after finally rising into positive territory in mid-2013.
Scarcity, of course, is one of the main things that makes prices rise, and right now there appears to be a glut of just about everything, from oil to cotton to iron ore. In addition, high rates of joblessness and under-employment indicate labour oversupply, and hence low wages. And even capital abounds: global wealth has more than doubled since 2000 to an estimated $263tn. Read more
At some of the conferences I attend in the US it’s fashionable to ask panelists and speakers what constitutional amendment they’d propose — what single change, in other words, they think would make the biggest positive difference in our society. I used to dislike this question because I never felt enough passion and certainty about any one change that could be enacted via an amendment.
But now I do. My constitutional amendment is that interactions between citizens and the police should be recorded and archived.
Two recent events have solidified this idea for me: one tragic, one closer to a farce. The tragedy was the death of Walter Scott at the hands of a white police officer in South Carolina earlier this month. Scott, an African-American, was unarmed and non-violent at the start the encounter, which began when his car was pulled over for having a faulty taillight. It ended with him being repeatedly and fatally shot in the back as he fled. Read more
Of the many things I’ve learnt from Google’s chief economist Hal Varian, perhaps my favourite is his elegant and thrifty approach to prediction. “A simple way to forecast the future,” he says, “is to look at what rich people have today.” This works. Applying this method a few years ago would have led one to foresee the rise of Uber and the spread of smartphones around the world, to take just two examples.
Hal’s point is that tech progress quite quickly makes initially expensive things — both goods and services — cheaper, and so hastens their spread. Which is why this progress is the best economic news on the planet (I wish there were stiffer competition for that title these days).
So what do the rich have today that will soon spread widely? A recent article in the online magazine Matter probably holds a clue. Lauren Smiley’s “The Shut-In Economy” details the parade of delivery people and service providers that show up each evening at the apartment complexes that house San Francisco’s tech elite. Smiley writes that “Outside my building there’s always a phalanx of befuddled delivery guys… Inside, the place is stuffed with the goodies they bring.” Read more
I attended the TED conference last week, and came away from it with a renewed appreciation of how much and how quickly tech progress is changing the world, and our lives. TED is an ambitious event that covers a huge amount of territory, and I think most attendees would agree that some of the talks leave them cold, some are actively frustrating and some are amazing. The fact that no two participants have the same categorisation is a great strength of the gathering.
I’m hugely biased toward talks from my fellow geeks: the ones who put the T (for “technology”) in TED. And this year’s cohort of T talks did not disappoint. In fact, they managed to surprise me even though I study tech progress for a living, and have spent much of the past few years making the case that progress with all things digital is broad, deep and fast these days. Read more
The discussion about the future of work is heating up, which is welcome news. Most of the smartest people I interact with are convinced that some of the trends — the hollowing out of the middle class, wage stagnation, declines in labour market dynamism and fluidity, higher inequality and low social mobility, and so on — are real and troubling.
There’s an active and extremely productive debate about the causes for this.We’re trying to parse out responsibility for the trends across what I call the “gang of four” causes: technological progress, globalisation, an increase in “monopoly capitalism” and general economic headwinds, malaise and stagnation. These are currently considered to be the main drivers of the labour force changes we’re observing. With time and research we’ll get a clearer picture of their true roles. Read more
I participated in a fascinating and slightly unsettling event last week. The Hamilton Project, an American think tank founded in 2006 to promote “public investment, a secure social safety net, and fiscal discipline,” convened a group to discuss “The Future of Work in the Age of the Machine“. Because Erik Brynjolfsson and I wrote a book on this topic we were asked to be part of the on-stage conversation. Erik was on the first panel, titled “the future of jobs,” and I was on the second, which dealt with the future of business innovation. Read more
The shuttering of an iconic company for nerds provides a good opportunity to ask about the state of ‘bottom-up’ innovation — the work of hobbyists, tinkerers, and DIYers of all kinds. The good news is that, despite a fair amount of fretting that individuals were being shut out of ‘real’ innovation, exactly the opposite is occurring. Read more
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