This Book Envisions That Technology Will Make Everyone’s Jobs Better in the Future

What's to come?
Jan. 29 2014 7:57 AM

Will Technology Make Work Better for Everyone?

The Second Machine Age and the future of enjoying your job.

Employees select and dispatch items in the huge Amazon 'fulfillment center' warehouse on November 28, 2013 in Peterborough, England.
From a technological point of view, Amazon warehouses are perfect examples of human-machine symbiosis in action. From a subjective point of view, though, many of these workers report feeling like robots themselves.

Photo by Oli Scarff/Getty Images

On the evening of Thursday, Feb. 6, The Second Machine Age authors Andrew McAfee and Erik Brynjolffson will be at New America NYC to discuss their book with New York Times economics reporter Catherine Rampell. For more information and to RSVP, click here.  

Two major publications hit bookstore shelves last week with the same overarching theme: The Second Machine Age, an important and (deservedly) much hyped new book on the future of technology and work from Andrew McAfee and Erik Brynjolfsson, and the Jan. 18 issue of the Economist, whose cover story paints a similar picture of the rapidly evolving nature of work. Yet each of these focuses primarily on one half of the story—how technology will affect the quantity of work, rather than the quality. If, as these authors argue, the key to future economic growth and prosperity is “racing with the machines,” with humans and ever-smarter computers doing what they're best at side-by-side, is this a future you should be looking forward to, if you're lucky enough to have a job in the future at all?

The short answer is that no one knows for sure. Predicting the future of technology will always be tough, let alone predicting how social and technological factors will interact over time. Both The Second Machine Age and the Economist are generally optimistic: McAfee and Brynjolfsson envision a world with “less need to work doing boring, repetitive tasks and more opportunity for creative and interactive work.” Similarly, the Economist takes the viewpoint that although “innovation kills some jobs, it creates new and better ones.”

Advertisement

But there are at least three big reasons why the work of the future won't necessarily be fulfilling.

First, the tasks that are easy to automate aren't necessarily the boring and repetitive ones, and the tasks that are hard to automate aren't necessarily the fun and interesting ones. Consider, for example, the warehouses that power Amazon's vast supply chains. As shown in a recent BBC documentary and a first-person account in the Guardian, the workers in these warehouses aren't exactly living the dream—they are under constant pressure by their computerized overlords to meet impossible picking-and-placing targets, are physically exhausted at the end of work each day, and their working conditions may put them at increased risk of mental illness.

From a technological point of view, these warehouses are perfect examples of human-machine symbiosis in action. People have excellent dexterity and perception compared with robots, and computers can schedule workers' movements around the warehouse efficiently, use their perfect memories to keep track of the locations of items, and set targets to motivate employees. From a subjective point of view, though, many of these workers report feeling like robots themselves.

Second, even when enjoyable and harmonious jobs are technologically and socially feasible, companies may not face strong incentives to design them like that. I don't mean to pick on Amazon, but another one of their business units illustrates this point quite well. Amazon's Mechanical Turk is a system for achieving “artificial artificial intelligence”—people get paid from 1 cent to a few dollars to perform small “micro-tasks” that humans can do fairly easily but computers still can't. If you're a company and need, say, thousands of images (or pornographic videos) labeled, or categorized, or summarized in a sentence, Mechanical Turk is a great resource.

TODAY IN SLATE

Politics

Blacks Don’t Have a Corporal Punishment Problem

Americans do. But when blacks exhibit the same behaviors as others, it becomes part of a greater black pathology. 

I Bought the Huge iPhone. I’m Already Thinking of Returning It.

Scotland Is Just the Beginning. Expect More Political Earthquakes in Europe.

Lifetime Didn’t Think the Steubenville Rape Case Was Dramatic Enough

So they added a little self-immolation.

Two Damn Good, Very Different Movies About Soldiers Returning From War

Medical Examiner

The Most Terrifying Thing About Ebola 

The disease threatens humanity by preying on humanity.

Students Aren’t Going to College Football Games as Much Anymore, and Schools Are Getting Worried

The Good Wife Is Cynical, Thrilling, and Grown-Up. It’s Also TV’s Best Drama.

  News & Politics
Weigel
Sept. 19 2014 9:15 PM Chris Christie, Better Than Ever
  Business
Moneybox
Sept. 19 2014 6:35 PM Pabst Blue Ribbon is Being Sold to the Russians, Was So Over Anyway
  Life
Atlas Obscura
Sept. 19 2014 1:10 PM Ascension Island: Home of Lava Fields, a False Forest, and the World's Worst Golf Course
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 19 2014 3:07 PM Everything Is a "Women's Issue"
  Slate Plus
Slate Picks
Sept. 19 2014 12:00 PM What Happened at Slate This Week? The Slatest editor tells us to read well-informed skepticism, media criticism, and more.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 19 2014 4:48 PM You Should Be Listening to Sbtrkt
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 19 2014 5:03 PM White House Chief Information Officer Will Run U.S. Ebola Response
  Health & Science
Medical Examiner
Sept. 19 2014 5:09 PM Did America Get Fat by Drinking Diet Soda?   A high-profile study points the finger at artificial sweeteners.
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 18 2014 11:42 AM Grandmaster Clash One of the most amazing feats in chess history just happened, and no one noticed.