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.”
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.