One of the most interesting talks at this week's Dell World was a panel with Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian and Andrew McAfee and Eric Brynjolfsson, authors of The Second Machine Age. It was a fascinating – and frightening – talk about what's to come.
You Can Make Any Job You Want
Ohanian and co-founder Steve Huffman started with something called MMM, a service that would let you order things like coffee on your phone while you approached a Starbucks and have it waiting for you when you arrived. A venture capitalist crapped all over the idea – only to call the pair back and say they'd get funding if they built almost anything else. Ohanian and Huffman were told to fix a problem they personally had; in this case, it was finding news on the Web pertinent to their interests. The VC funded them to create the "Front Page for the Internet," and Reddit was born.
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Ohanian's point: Given the tools available today, unlike no time before in history, people can basically create whatever job they want and find a way to make money doing it. Authors can write and sell through Amazon without getting a publisher. Jewelers can create amazing things a sell through a variety of online sites. Movie makers can get their pictures crowd-funded. Coders can live off the apps they create. Ohanian gave specific examples of students funding their college education with the passive revenue earned by writing apps.
People who can code will be the wizards in this magical age, Ohanian says, because their products have little cost and near unlimited revenue potential. Physical offerings can't match that. It's a heck of a pitch to get kids into programing – and I'll bet it had more than a few adults in the audience rethinking their career plans.
McAfee and Brynjolfsson mentioned Google's $1 million learning machine, which can figure out whether a photo is a face, a body or a cat. (Apparently, there are a lot of cats.) This was pretty amazing – until someone built a $20,000 workstation with off-the-shelf-parts and replicated the experience.
Predicting the Second Machine Age
Meanwhile, it was just as interesting to hear the authors disagree as it was to hear then make more predictions. In the early part of the last decade, for example, they said that, while robots will take jobs, they wouldn't be driving cars or dealing with people's problems. Then the authors showed pictures taken a few years ago of themselves riding in Google's self-driving car and of robotic tools that help people work through problems. They went on to say that robots won't take over creative and innovative jobs. I was left wondering why, given how wrong they were last cycle.
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As you can imagine, McAfee and Brynjolfsson spent a lot of time on robots. One focal point was Baxter, a low-cost robot designed to work side-by-side with human workers. Anyone doing a job can program Baxter by walking it through the paces. It's only the tip of the iceberg – there are robotic cheetahs running around (I imagine) terrorizing MIT students, and Intel just gave a bunch of kids an award for a robotic drone that you wear on your wrist.
Where the authors argued was on Elon Musk's comment that we're creating robotic demons. McAfee argued that spreadsheets are pretty smart, and he isn't worried about a spreadsheet coming to kill him. (At that point I got worried.) Brynjolfsson, on the other hand, pointed out that the danger is doing something accidentally. For instance, if you hook a learning machine to the old video game Battlezone and tell it to maximize its score, it'll be unbeatable in a short period of time. I can easily imagine someone getting lazy with some new robotic weapons system (remember Colossus: the Forbin Project?) and having that end badly.
EIEIO: Advanced Economics, Not Basic Agriculture
Robotic Demons aside, the pair really talked about another Industrial Revolution that will dramatically change the job market and shift economies. They argued that the U.S. government is out to lunch about ensuring that we humans benefit from this change.
The reason we're unprepared, they said, is because we need to relearn Economics 101. The acronym they use is EIEIO, which even I could remember. It stands for Education, Infrastructure, Entrepreneurship, Immigration and Original Research. You need smart people, you need the infrastructure to let them be productive; you need people who can build new companies around ideas; you need to encourage smart, creative people to live in your country; and you need original research as the foundation of the economic event.
McAfee and Brynjolfsson argue that, though the government has focused on education, aging infrastructure is starting to fail, regulations kill small businesses, a lack of immigration reform blocks smart people from coming here, and funding for original research has been cut. They say the U.S. government seems to want the U.S. to become a Third World country once the world pivots to the new economic models. We'll likely be overwhelmed with the unemployed. (Even with robots doing most of our work, we'll still create a very different kind of nation – and McAfee and Brynjolfsson glossed over the fact that the last Industrial Revolution killed millions of people.)
We're moving quickly into a new age and robotics, increasingly intelligent systems, and other advances will result in a level of change we can't fully anticipate. The advice from McAfee and Brynjolfsson, which I agree with, is to learn to be flexible, be willing to retrain, and to make sure you instill in your kids the need to study subjects that let them be flexible regarding both their education and their eventual job. This flexibility and willingness to embrace change will undoubtedly separate those who survive in this new world from those who don't.
The Second Machine Age is worth a read. As for me, I'm thinking the survivalists don't look that crazy anymore.