Are The Droids Taking Our Jobs? Andrew McAfee Says Yes

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Are the droids taking our jobs?

 Technological Unemployment
Speaking at a recent TEDx event, Andrew McAfee describes how technology is replacing not only low skill jobs, but also higher skilled ones by augmenting human brainpower.  Along with Erik Brynjolfsson, McAfee wrote last year's must-read, Race Against The Machine.
Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee's Race Against the Machine was a big reason for us to start 33rd Square.  The exploration of technological unemployment and accelerating change in the book

The popular explanation right now for the economic downturn is that the root cause underlying these symptoms is technological stagnation-- a slowdown in the kinds of ideas and inventions that bring progress and prosperity.
Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee

In Race Against the Machine, MIT's Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee present a very different explanation. Drawing on research by their team at the Center for Digital Business, they show that there's been no stagnation in technology -- in fact, the digital revolution is accelerating. Recent advances are the stuff of science fiction: computers now drive cars in traffic, translate between human languages effectively, and beat the best human Jeopardy! players. As these examples show, digital technologies are rapidly encroaching on skills that used to belong to humans alone.

The economic implications of this  phenomenon are broad and deep, and have profound economic implications. Many of these implications are positive; digital innovation increases productivity, reduces prices (sometimes to zero), and grows the overall economic pie. Workers are made safer and healthier by advances in automation.  But digital innovation has also changed how the economic pie is distributed, and here the news is not good for the median worker.

As technology races ahead, it potentially leave many people behind. Workers whose skills have been mastered by computers have less to offer the job market, and see their wages and prospects shrink.

Entrepreneurial business models, new organizational structures and different institutions are needed to ensure that the average worker is not left behind by cutting-edge machines. In Race Against the Machine Brynjolfsson and McAfee bring together a range of statistics, examples, and arguments to show that technological progress is accelerating, and that this trend has deep consequences for skills, wages, and jobs. The book makes the case that employment prospects are grim for many today not because there's been technology has stagnated, but instead because we humans and our organizations aren't keeping up.

According to McAfee, "We ain't seen nothing yet when it comes to technology's impact on the labour force."
Speaking at a recent TEDx event, he described how technology is replacing not only low skill jobs, but also higher skilled ones by augmenting human brainpower the way steam engines augmented human labour. In this engaging talk, he braces us for a fundamental transformation in the future of work.


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