What can we expect from the Second Machine Age ?
According to the author of The Second Machine Age – Work, Progress, and Prosperity in a Time of Brilliant Technologies, the first machine age replaced our muscles. The second one is going to replace our brain. Terrifying? Not if we use this revolutionnary power to resolve the greatest challenges of our century…
The steam engine, the forgotten heroe of human history
Andrew McAfee says that if you ask the following question at a dinner party: “What is the most important development in human history?” the resulting debate will be fascinating. Depending on the guests’ profiles, some will mention new ways of thinking the world, divine revelations, wars or empires, journeys of discovery, great scientific inventions or art and humanities. If there is a geek among the assembly, his approach will be most interesting: What proof is there? What does the data say? What has an impact on the history curve of humanity? What helps us measure this are facts such as the number of people on the planet, the speed at which their living standards improve, the speed at which the economy grows.
In the end, the empires and revolutions that occurred in history have had little effect compared to the turning point that was the steam engine. This technological creation reshaped our existence.
Today still, we are the beneficiaries of the first machine age that replaced our muscles. Thus, we are richer, in better health and we live longer.
But this has also had an impact on the world, and not always a positive one. We sometimes used and abused the planet irreversibly. The 1960ies and 1970ies saw the rise and confirmation of preoccupations on that topic. Around that time, alarming books were published: The H Bomb, The Limits to Growth, Famine 1975…
McAfee underlines these concerns to show that these alarmist forecasts did not come to anything. Human intelligence found solutions. For instance, after years of logging to build ships and trains, wood became so expensive that it was replaced by other raw materials. These negative externalities were in the end pushed away by market forces and innovation.
The personal computer: a chess player in the past, a Go player in the future
The second machine age started with a new tool, the computer. It rapidly became personal and democratized. However, although hardware investments continue to increase, they have now been taken over by software investments.
According to Andrew McAfee, we are entering a period of dematerialization, where doing more with less becomes the norm.
“Technology continues and will continue to surprise us”.
Let us take the example of the Go game. Since the rise of computers, men have kept on trying to program them so that they would excel in games that men love to play themselves. In 1997, the machine showed its superiority over the human mind in chess.
For the Go game, the story is more complex. In 2014, an article in Wired magazine insisted on the difficulty of the Go game for programming purposes. For this game with a multitude of patterns, it simply is impossible to use sheer computational power. There simply is not enough time to find the solution. It is also relatively difficult to explain the reasons for the moves in a Go game, as expressed beautifully by Michael Polanyi: “We know more than we can say”.
In 2015, the scientific review Nature published an article on the use of deep neural networks to master the Go game. Finally, the news came out on March 9th, 2016: the 4-1 victory of AlphaGo against Lee Sedol, considered the best player worldwide. McAfee insists on the response to the news: “I didn’t expect this to happen so fast” was the most common reaction.
This era of dematerialization is just starting and will only accelerate…
Climate change and pauperization, two challenges for the second machine age
This revolutionary power must however be put to the service of resolving the two great challenges of the 21st century. The second challenge is the constant pressure put on the middle class, though profits have reached their usual levels. This second challenge is all the more important that some of its causes stem from this machine age. Indeed less work is needed to produce the same item.
But Andrew McAfee is resolutely optimistic. In the face of technology’s incommensurable powers, he insists that the number of well-intentioned people exceeds that of ill-intentioned people, so that the world should continue moving forward. He reminds us that innovations were always criticized, from printing to the conquest of space. Dematerialization has in fact brought back a writing culture: if one takes a closer look, it is clear that younger generations write more than before. Equally, the world volume of business trips is going up, despite the existence of telepresence systems.
Therefore, humans are and will remain at the heart of the machine age.
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