Around the Institute

The Second Machine Age: A Q&A with MIT Research Scientist Andrew McAfee

April 17, 2014

MIT Center for Digital Business principal research scientist Andrew McAfee.

On April 21st, Andrew McAfee, MIT Center for Digital Business principal research scientist, will join the Institute in Washington, DC, to discuss the new book he co-authored with MIT Center for Digital Business Director Erik Brynjolfsson, “The Second Machine Age: Work Progress and Prosperity in a Time of Brilliant Technologies” as part of the Alma and Joseph Gildenhorn Book Series.

The live-streamed discussion is scheduled for 12:15pm and will feature Institute President and CEO Walter Isaacson. In advance of the event, the Aspen Idea blog checked in with McAfee to get his predictions about how the advanced technology revolution will change the work force, the economy, and our lives.

Aspen Idea: We’ve heard about Google’s autonomous cars and other new and developing technologies, such as Elon Musk’s Hyperloop high-speed train project. How far away are we from these technologies becoming ubiquitous in society?

Andrew McAfee: In some ways, a lot of these technologies already are commonplace. There’s a lot of natural language processing going on in the background every time we talk to Siri on our iPhones. There already are a lot of autonomous vehicles in the world. They are primarily aircraft; a lot of them are military. There are trucks being driven around great big mines all over the world that don’t have any drivers in them. 

So these technologies are already in the mainstream economy. They’re not very widespread yet, but the diffusion is going to keep happening, and I think it’s going to accelerate. We don’t know exactly how quickly, there are technical barriers, there are regulatory barriers, mindset barriers. So it’s really hard to predict exactly how these cutting-edge technologies are going to diffuse throughout the economy, but we already see it happening. 

AI: In your book “The Second Machine Age,” you explain how the inner workings of both blue- and white-collar jobs, as currently we know them, will be upended. Can you describe this “new normal” for the workforce? What can we expect to stay the same?

AM: We already know a lot about how the work force is being affected by technology, thanks to a lot of really good research by our colleague David Autor at MIT, and some other people. This idea of hollowing out, or polarization, is real. What we see happening going forward, as we move deeper into the second machine age, is that hollowing out and that encroachment is likely to be deeper and broader. So we expect to see technology encroaching into [more] human territory and also having a bigger impact on more jobs, more industries. 

Are there human skills that are going to remain completely human? The answer to that, I think, is absolutely. Creativity, the arts, innovation — I haven’t seen computers be any good at that yet. And I haven’t seen computers that are compassionate, that have empathy. I haven’t seen computers that are good negotiators, or good leaders of the team, so the art of management will probably be around for some time to come. 

There are a lot of human skills that I think will remain human; that doesn’t mean that the industries where those skills are important are not going to be changed.

AI: What are the keys to survival in this digital revolution, for both employees and companies?

AM: For people, the ground rule is to have skills that are complementary to machines, as opposed to substitutable by machines: negotiation, deep interpersonal skills, compassion and empathy, creativity and problem-solving, the ability to program computers, the ability to do work in the physical world. There’s a [wide] range of skills that are still going to be valuable in the world that we’re creating. So for people, the job is to figure out where your passions are, what you’re good at, and how you can race with machines instead of against them. 

For companies, the survival manual appears to be: become a lot more open to geeks, machines, and outsiders. I believe there is a huge wave of disruption coming over the next generation or two, probably as big as about a century ago, when we saw electrification come and completely upend the manufacturing industry. 

AI: What policies can be implemented to best take advantage of these new technologies, without threatening the progress of a strengthening labor market?

AM: That is one of the really important questions for us all to think about, and without impeding the progress [of the growing labor market], I think that’s a really important ground rule. Because some of the stuff that I hear from well-intentioned people is about, ‘How do we stop technological progress,’ or, ‘How do we make sure that tech progress doesn’t ever displace anybody from their job?’ We need to let technology race ahead because it’s bringing all kinds of great things to us in our lives. 

What we have to do is modify our institutions and our policies and our organizations more quickly to keep up with tech progress. How do we do that? We take a good, hard look at education, and we make the environment very receptive to entrepreneurship, because entrepreneurship is where job growth happens. We put in place a first-world infrastructure in this country, we liberalize immigration policies. And we double-down on government funding of basic research, because it is the start of the innovation process, which has been one of America’s great strengths throughout history. If we could do these kinds of things, the economy would grow more quickly, and job growth and wage growth would come along with that.