Monday, 30 July 2012

Andrew McAfee: Race Against the Machine

Andrew McAfee, coauthor of Race Against the Machine did very interesting TED talk recently on the subject of his book, overlapping heavily with the subject of this blog. The first half of the talk does an excellent job of stating the problem. He demonstrates how businesses are profiting more than ever today, investing in technology more than ever -- but are not hiring. He also talks about how various technologies are starting to catch up and even eclipse humans in cognitive tasks such as translation and writing grammatically-perfect articles, and that 'we ain't seen nothing yet'.

Oddly, while demonstrating that 'droids are coming for your jobs' he also claims that current debate on 'whether these technologies are affecting people's ability to make a living' is 'missing the point entirely'.

For the millions of people people losing their houses to foreclosure, shuffling in the dole queues and soup kitchens, collecting paltry benefits, wallowing in depression and freezing in alleys and tent cities I would say the concern about losing income is exactly on point and in need of urgent focus. Is he saying that we ought to just wait out the storms in a 'laissez-faire' kind of manner and that the problems will spontaneously sort themselves out?

Unfortunately, I think so. He doesn't offer anything in the way of suggested actions and decisions we could be making. Instead, his talk pivots half-way through onto an optimistic feel-good frame which I think has shaky foundations. He points to one good aspect of technology at the bottom of the pyramid -- citing a study of poor rural fishing villages leveraging the power of cell phones to improve their knowledge of the market situation and reduce waste.

Yes, we know that human productivity rises when technology is introduced, and it's initially a huge benefit to independent workers. But what happens when poor fishermen with creaky boats come into competition with hyper-efficient automated fishing operations? On land, where robots have a surer footing, we can see how small, poor farmers suffer in competition with gigantic, scaled and highly automated agribusiness.

A time when hands are not needed to steer the ship and haul the fishing nets can't be too far away, as these are pretty routine tasks, and there's plenty of research going into ship automation. With no income stream to leverage,  information carrier technology becomes increasingly useless, not to mention unaffordable (in the current consumer paradigm).

I'm too am hopeful that technology will benefit the neediest in the world. We know of it's potential, but we can't afford to think that technology will steer itself to that end without heavy political upheaval going on of some kind or another. That's the missing step in the transition that too few people (and almost no prominent futurists and economists) are willing to talk about -- including myself, for now.

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