How to stay ahead of robots in the ‘second machine age’

BY Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee  February 14, 2014 at 12:20 PM EST
Robots still lack the interpersonal skills that will continue to give humans an advantage in the labor market. Photo by Louis-Philippe Demers via Flickr user Ars Electronica.

Robots still lack the interpersonal skills that will continue to give humans an advantage in the labor market. Photo by Louis-Philippe Demers via Flickr user Ars Electronica.

Editor’s Note: The robots have arrived. And what’s more, they’re leading a new machine age, say Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee of MIT’s Center for Digital Business, that will have an even bigger effect than the first.

No longer content to automate our manual tasks, they’re now competing with our own cognitive ability, Brynjolfsson and McAfee told Paul Solman in an extended conversation on Making Sense.

So now that they’re here, replacing jobs that workers used to do, how are humans supposed to make a living? Brynjolfsson and McAfee, authors of “The Second Machine Age,” see the robotic competition as an opportunity for America to invest in the training and entrepreneurship that will allow humans to stay a step ahead of increasingly sophisticated machines.

Simone Pathe, Making Sense Editor

Watch Paul Solman tour Boston’s robotic scene with Brynjolfsson and McAfee.


Erik Brynjolfsson: Historically, education in America has focused on getting people to follow instructions, sitting in rows and listening to what the teacher explains, but going forward we’re going to need much more creativity. Simply following instructions is something that software is pretty good at doing, and that’s not where you want to be competing, but we’re going to have more and more need for creativity.

Paul Solman: As it stands, 30 percent, at most, of Americans get a four-year college degree, and there was talk in the last presidential campaign — Rick Santorum I remember making this point — that not all Americans should be getting a college degree. It doesn’t pay off for them. So when you’re talking about raising the bar with regard to education, aren’t you maybe talking about something that can’t happen? Raising the bar too high?

Erik Brynjolfsson: It’s more complex than that. It’s not simply a matter of raising the bar. Certainly it would be beneficial if more Americans went to college, but there’s also a need for better vocational training, getting more people just to graduate from high school. A lot of the tasks don’t require college education but are still going to be in demand. Jobs involving dexterity, human interpersonal relationships, and those types of skills are things that a lot of humans have naturally, and can be developed further.

Paul Solman: Give me specific jobs that if young people are watching and don’t want to go to college, don’t think they could cut it at a really good school, let’s say, what do they do?

Andrew McAfee: The infrastructure in this country is in lousy shape. The American Society of Civil Engineers gives us a D+ overall. We’ve got bridges and roads and ports that are crumbling. The physical plants in our schools, the boilers and the pipes are decades old; they’re desperately in need of repair.

There’s no robot that can do any of those jobs yet; there’s no robot that can climb over a bridge and work on it, or lay tarmac on a road, or go into a school and fix the boiler. These are, potentially, if we get our spending on infrastructure right, these are good jobs; they’re jobs that will lead to a good career, and they’re not jobs that technology can do yet.

Erik Brynjolfsson: And there’s an explosion of opportunities in jobs that involve interacting with other people, from sales people to nursing and elder care, kindergarten teachers. These are areas where you don’t necessarily need a college degree, but you do need to know how to relate to other people, and that’s something that we can cultivate and encourage to a greater extent, and where humans still have a huge edge over machines.

Paul Solman: In the 1930s there was the CCC — Civilian Conservation Corp — cleaning up the national parks and so forth, so what about an MMM — a Mass Massage Mobilization — that’s the kind of thing you’re talking about, everybody becomes a massage therapist, or many people?

Erik Brynjolfsson: Well there actually has been an explosion in the growth of personal trainers, people who know how to motivate other people to stick to their fitness goals, and work on wellness, not just healthcare. And yes, maybe there will be a growth in massage therapists as well, but there’s a whole set of jobs that involve interacting with other people that we see a lot of growth in.

Andrew McAfee: And think about jobs like personal trainer and home health aide or massage therapist. Those require a really rich mix of skills. Maybe they don’t need to come from a four-year college, but they require skills. You have to have a base of knowledge about your discipline, you have to be able to communicate with and motivate somebody else, and all those jobs involve work in the physical world. You’ve got to move around, you’ve got to handle objects.

Technology is lousy at all of those things, so instead of throwing up our hands and saying that the robots are going to take over everything, let’s double down on innovation and on revamping education to prepare people for the kinds of jobs that will be there.

Erik Brynjolfsson: We think the best way to try to find the new jobs is to crowd source this question, and that means throwing it out to hundreds and thousands, millions of entrepreneurs, who are going to try lots of different things. Some of them are going to fail spectacularly, but we’re hopeful that some of them will hit upon new ideas that I haven’t thought of, and that you haven’t thought of, and that President Obama hasn’t thought of, that will turn out to be the big growth industries of the next decade.

Andrew McAfee: We spent a lot of time on entrepreneurship in the book, not because some entrepreneurs get spectacularly wealthy and we love plutocrats, but because entrepreneurship is how job creation and economic growth actually happen. It’s not a centralized activity. It’s a very decentralized one.

Paul Solman: But how many people can become entrepreneurs?

Erik Brynjolfsson: It’s not that we think everyone’s going to become an entrepreneur, or even a personal trainer. It’s that entrepreneurs are the ones that invent and discover the new industries. Ninety percent of Americans used to work on farms, remember, back in 1800, and it was 42 percent in 1900, but 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. We’re hopeful that there will be a next generation of entrepreneurs that will help invent the new industries.

Paul Solman: But infrastructure, child care, elder care, these are going to be government programs, right, which are going to cost us more in taxes?

Andrew McAfee: They’re not going to be entirely government programs, but government absolutely does have a role to play in the transition to the second machine age that we’ve been talking about here. But when the country faces significant opportunities and challenges, that is a time for all the people to come together, and for lots of different parties to take a role, government included.

Erik Brynjolfsson: There’s definitely a role for government as a catalyst today, just as there was in the first machine age, but ultimately, the bulk of job creation, and the bulk of innovation, is likely to come from the private sector, or from partnerships between the government and the private sector. That’s why we’re in favor of creating platforms for entrepreneurship and doing things that will boost job creation throughout the economy, not just in government programs.

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

Erik Brynjolfsson: Like almost all Americans, we’re disappointed that the United States government hasn’t seized the opportunity to address these problems the way it should. We see wondrous things happening in Silicon Valley and our technology labs, and we’d like to see government step up to this challenge, but we’re not going to get to the right solutions until we get the right diagnosis. And this book is really focused on understanding what the core problems are, and we’re hopeful that ultimately the public policy makers will do the right thing.