Reporter with Silicon Hills News

Erick Brynjolfsson, courtesy photo

Erick Brynjolfsson, courtesy photo

Intelligent computers are changing the world and replacing humans in many jobs and tasks, said Erik Brynjolfsson at Dell World.

He is the director of the MIT Center for Digital Business and the co-author of the bestseller, “The Second Machine Age: Work, Progress, and Prosperity in a time of Brilliant Technologies.” His co-author is Andrew McAfee, principal research scientist for MIT’s Center for Digital Business. They spoke along with Alexis Ohanian, co-founder of Reddit, Wednesday during the afternoon keynote at Dell World at the Austin Convention Center.

Compared to the late 1700s, people are 100 times wealthier today than people of that era, Brynjolfsson said. The industrial revolution made that possible. It ushered in an era of innovation powered by the steam engine, the combustion engine and electricity.

“We’re now in the second machine age – not in the power system – but in the control system,” Brynjolfsson said.

“It’s not in muscle but in the mind – computers, software, big data, machine intelligence,” he said.

The pace of change under the steam engine in the industrial age improved the economy at an exponential rate leading to a doubling in technology every 75 years, Brynjolfsson said.

In contrast, Moore’s Law states computers are doubling in power every couple of years or so, he said.

“When you have better and better power systems, you still have to have better control systems,” Brynjolfsson said.

As Machines Improved, Humans Improved Too

“Today, the control system is being augmented and it’s not clear where humans are going to be,” he said. If they are going to be complements or substitutes for this new technology, and this has profound implications for the economy, he said.

In 2004, Brynjolfsson and McAfee assumed that a computer and machine could not replace unique human abilities like the ability to drive a car through heavy traffic. Google’s driverless cars proved them wrong, Brynjolfsson said.

Unique human abilities like autonomous mobility and fine motor control, language and complex communication, pattern matching and more are being matched by machine intelligence, he said.

Today, humans talk to their cell phones and they will begin to routinely talk to machines, Brynjolfsson said. Machines are already writing simple news stories, he said.

“Perhaps, most profoundly, machines are making huge inroads in solving unstructured problems,” he said.

IBM’s Watson computer demonstrated the ability to improve at an incredible rate. It won against human champs at Jeopardy in 2011. And it has only gotten better since then. Today, human cognitive computing technology, the brain behind Watson, is being used in call centers, legal centers and for medical diagnosis, Brynjolfsson said.

What does all of this mean for the economy?

“Productivity and GDP are rising,” he said. But there’s been a great decoupling or growing gap in wealth that hasn’t been seen since just before the Great Depression, Brynjolfsson said.

The hard truth is digital progress makes the economic pie bigger, but there is no economic law that it will make people better off, Brynjolfsson said.

As a result, technology has helped some groups more than others, he said. It has helped high skilled workers and superstars with the ability to amplify their talents to global audiences.

“There have been some real changes in the economy over the past 10 years,” Brynjolfsson said. “There are also some big challenges. We also need to update our organizations and our skills to adjust to those.”

Andrew McAfee, courtesy photo

Andrew McAfee, courtesy photo

Looking into the future, McAfee said “these are the warm up acts, we ain’t seen nothing yet.”

Machines will continue to show up in roles traditionally held by humans, he said. For example, studies have shown that people are more willing to open up to a virtual therapist than a human one, McAfee said. Ellie, a virtual therapist, is helping soldiers returning form Afghanistan to deal with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, according to NBC News.

In a discussion following their talks, Ohanian asked Brynjolfsson and McAfee how workers should prepare for the future.
McAfee said to teach kids to be curious.

Brynjolfsson advised people to sharpen their technology skills.