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In ‘second machine age’ of robots, it’s time for humans to get creative

February 13, 2014 at 6:34 PM EDT
Robotic technology is increasingly infiltrating our everyday world, and as robots become more capable of human labor, people will likely have to develop new skills for new jobs. Economics correspondent Paul Solman talks to Erik Brynjolfsson and Andy McAfee, who argue in their new book, "The Second Machine Age," that we are facing a radical new industrial revolution.

GWEN IFILL: All week this week, we have been stepping into the future with stories about robots in the opera and the coming revolution in 3-D printing.

Now Paul Solman gets in on the act with a look at the economics of this latest machine age. It’s part of his ongoing coverage Making Sense of financial news.

PAUL SOLMAN: Sorry to see you do that.

A robot that plays Connect Four. First one to get four in a row wins. My grandkids thrash me at 10 times this speed, but after decades, as promised, robots like Baxter here are finally replacing humans at a breakneck pace.


Or so say MIT Professors Erik Brynjolfsson and Andy McAfee.

ANDREW MCAFEE, Co-author, “The Second Machine Age”: Where we have always needed human beings, suddenly, we have digital alternatives to all of them that are already pretty good and getting better very, very quickly.

ERIK BRYNJOLFSSON, Co-author, “The Second Machine Age”: Andy and I have been astonished at how rapidly things are happening, whether it’s self-driving cars, computers that can place “Jeopardy” and beat the best champion. We are seeing a wave of technologies that can automate all sorts of cognitive tasks.

PAUL SOLMAN: In their new book, “The Second Machine Age,” Brynjolfsson and McAfee argue that industry is facing a revolution as radical as the one powered by the steam engine.

ANDREW MCAFEE: The Industrial Revolution was about overcoming the limitations of our individual muscles. What is going on right now in the second machine age is overcoming the limitations of our individual minds.

PAUL SOLMAN: At MIT’s museum, the march of the smart machine.

ANDREW MCAFEE: We have had robots in the lab for a long, long time.


ANDREW MCAFEE: Now we have robots out there in the real world doing productive work every day. That’s a big difference.

ERIK BRYNJOLFSSON: But these physical robots are just sort of the tip of the iceberg of literally billions of software robots that are cruising across the Internet.

PAUL SOLMAN: Countless specific software programs like Kayak providing cheaper travel, Amazon with its one-click buying and personalized shopping tips, maps that talk you to your destination.

ANDREW MCAFEE: The more experienced the technologies get, the more data they get, the better job they do.

PAUL SOLMAN: At Boston’s new MakerBot Store, the 3-D printers make a bust of you, one plastic layer at a time, or anything else you can dream up.

ANDREW MCAFEE: Right now, this 3-D printing machine is just being used to generate a miniature, but other ones are being used to make things like dental implants on the spot, to make things like prosthetic jaw implants that are completely customized for an individual.

PAUL SOLMAN: Also completely customized, mechanical hands and fingers.

BOY: I can pick up stuff.

PAUL SOLMAN: With these printers, anybody with a new notion, from a better baby spoon to an electric skateboard, can become an entrepreneur, because it costs peanuts to lay down a prototype.

ERIK BRYNJOLFSSON: The great thing about this technology isn’t just the way it is bringing down costs; it’s the way it is making complexity basically free. You can put any arbitrary design in here, and it will make it.

PAUL SOLMAN: And economic Elysium, lower costs, higher benefits, or, says McAfee, a glory greater than ancient Greece.

ANDREW MCAFEE: Where the citizens kind of debated democracy and led these kind of enlightened lives, they were supported by the work of human slaves.

PAUL SOLMAN: His vision, a robot-run Athens.

ANDREW MCAFEE: We won’t have human slaves. We will have an army of technologies that are doing the heavy lifting required for a society.

PAUL SOLMAN: But hold on. Is a world where robots do almost all the work more like classical Athens or Hades?

You could go up there.

Take my Connect Four rival. This could be Baxter taking a lunch break, if he ever needed one, but, in fact, he can do simple production jobs literally 24/7. And he’s a super quick learner.

RODNEY BROOKS, Rethink Robotics: If you want to get this robot to do a simple task, you grab its arm. And suppose I want to pick something up over here. I just bring it down, press the button, and it says, ah, he must have wanted me to pick something up.

PAUL SOLMAN: Baxter, who costs just $20,000, is the brainchild of Boston-based Rethink Robotics, whose CEO, Rodney Brooks, is a one-time MIT roboticist and the co-founder of iRobot, maker of the Roomba vacuum.

Brooks says Baxter is designed to augment human workers, not replace them.

RODNEY BROOKS: A lot of jobs in factories are very dull and very repetitive. For instance, there’s a factory in Pennsylvania, and one of the line technicians said the job where we recycle the broken pieces of plastic, it is an unhealthy job. And now Baxter sits there 24 hours a day doing that job that no one in the factory wants to do.

PAUL SOLMAN: Moreover, says Brooks, Baxter is keeping plants and jobs stateside by cutting costs.

RODNEY BROOKS: I see this as a tool that lets people in American factories be more productive.

PAUL SOLMAN: But how many people will Baxter and his brethren replace?

Oxford researchers predict half of all U.S. jobs will be automated away within the next few decades. Service jobs are supposedly the default, though it might mean a nation of hamburger flippers. But even the flippers may need a fallback, now that a machine can supposedly grind out 360 gourmet burgers an hour.

And speaking of food:

WOMAN: As you can see, the pizza was being prepared without being touched by any hand and in a human-free environment.

PAUL SOLMAN: Italy, the land that brought us handmade pizza, now brings us machine-made.

WOMAN: And, in less than three minutes, a healthy genuine Italian pizza is served, with a guaranteed total hygiene.

PAUL SOLMAN: McAfee and Brynjolfsson admit that more Baxters do mean fewer factory jobs.

ANDREW MCAFEE: But getting more from less is good news overall.

PAUL SOLMAN: It is good news for us as an economy.

ANDREW MCAFEE: As consumers.

PAUL SOLMAN: Yes, but this is just what people are afraid of, right, that that guy will take every manufacturing job imaginable.

ERIK BRYNJOLFSSON: With the first machine age, there were a lot of agricultural jobs that were eliminated, but the country responded by providing widespread education. And, as a consequence, we were able to move to a new set of occupations, a new set of skills.

PAUL SOLMAN: As robots get more and more capable, Brynjolfsson argues, we have to teach this generation of humans a new set of skills.

ERIK BRYNJOLFSSON: Education in America has focused on getting people to follow instructions. But, going forward, we are going to need much more creativity. Simply following rote instructions is something that software is pretty good at doing.

ANDREW MCAFEE: Let’s keep in mind there are still a lot of things that computers and artificial intelligence and robots are still lousy at compared to us. They’re very ineffective negotiators. They can’t lead a team of people. They can’t communicate subtleties the same way we can.

PAUL SOLMAN: Give me specific jobs that, if young people are watching, what do they do?

ANDREW MCAFEE: We have got bridges and roads and ports that are crumbling. The physical plant in our schools, they’re desperately in need of repair. There’s no robot that can do any of those jobs yet.

ERIK BRYNJOLFSSON: And there is an explosion of opportunities in jobs that involve interacting with other people, from salespeople to nursing and elder care, kindergarten teachers.

PAUL SOLMAN: How likely is it that, in this political environment, government is going to play a major role in making the transition to the new second machine age?

ERIK BRYNJOLFSSON: We’re disappointed that the United States government hasn’t seized the opportunity to address these problems the way it should.

But, ultimately, the bulk of job creation is likely to come from the private sector. Henry Ford, Steve Jobs, Bill Gates and lots of other people helped invent whole new industries that we couldn’t have conceived of at that time.

PAUL SOLMAN: And though robots may be racing ahead on the factory floor…

Connect Four!

… there is still time, it seems, before a “Terminator”-like takeover.

Eat your heart out, if you had one.

But don’t prompt a taunting penalty just yet, said Baxter engineer Kyle Maroney.

KYLE MARONEY, Baxter engineer: I didn’t necessarily put you on the highest level that he is capable of, so I cut you a little bit of a break.

PAUL SOLMAN: Turns out that, if he is programmed to win, Baxter can already beat any human, even a competitive reporter’s competitive grandkids.


PAUL SOLMAN: Their generation, it seems, had best learn the skills of the future, or else.

GWEN IFILL: You can read more online about what makes this the second — what makes this second machine age and what other jobs are still out there best suited for humans.