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ON THE SHELF - Reviewed by Robin Tatu

ON THE SHELFResistance Is Futile

Why technology will wipe out certain jobs, and what’s the smart way to react

Race Against the Machine: How the Digital Revolution is Accelerating Innovation, Driving Productivity, and Irreversibly Transforming Employment and the Economy

Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee, Digital Frontier Press 2012, 92 pages

The current rate of technological advance can often feel bewildering, with so many functions once handled by humans being automated, from manufacturing to banking to retail sales – and soon perhaps, if Google has its way, even driving cars. Yet, despite such incursions, too little attention is given to the ways in which machines are replacing many human jobs, write the authors of Race Against the Machine. Even as the U.S. economy recovers from the recession of 2007 to 2009, unemployment remains high, in part because companies are relying more heavily on technology that supplants human functions, while many workers are failing to master the skills needed to re-position themselves advantageously for this new reality.

The answer is not to rage against machines, as did 19th-century English textile workers, the Luddites, whose destructive rampages against industrial looms ultimately failed. Racing against machines is also futile because humans will always lose such a contest, as did folklore’s John Henry, who bested a steam shovel in a digging competition only to die from the exertion – or, more notably, Gary Kasparov, the world chess master who in 1997 lost to a $10 million supercomputer programmed by IBM.

In this slim yet incisive volume, Brynjolfsson and McAfee, who serve as director and associate director, respectively, of the MIT Center for Digital Business, make a strong case for recognizing the deep impact of accelerating technologies, noting that “the pace and scale of this encroachment into human skills is relatively recent, and has profound economic implications.” They reject a cataclysmic scenario, however: Computers may render many jobs obsolete, but they won’t spell the end of human workers; and some skills will become even more valuable than ever before. What is important, they feel, is to “understand these phenomena, discuss their implications, and come up with strategies that allow human workers to race ahead with machines instead of racing against them.”

The book’s first chapters bring home the point of just how quickly technology has been advancing over the past few years. Consider, for example, that the 2004 winning entry of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s Grand Challenge for autonomous land vehicles covered less than 8 miles in the uninhabited Mojave Desert, taking several hours to do so. That result seemed to confirm belief that computers could never master the complex functions needed to operate a car. Yet six years later, Google’s driverless car navigated more than 1,000 miles on terrain as tricky as the densely populated, winding streets of San Francisco. In other areas, computer programs are reaching unprecedented levels in translating language and beating humans hands down in sophisticated games such as Jeopardy! Chapter Three highlights the extent to which “technological unemployment” is affecting the economy, dissolving jobs, lowering the median family income, and creating serious divides between high- and low-skilled workers. As the power and scope of technology continue to accelerate, the authors warn, governments, businesses, and individuals must race not only to keep abreast but also to take advantage of new developments.

The last two chapters explore how to respond and benefit, citing pioneering businesses such as Google, Facebook, Apple, and Amazon, which have created new marketplaces and employment opportunities that had not existed before. A 19-step “agenda for action” moves beyond business to larger institutional changes the authors feel are needed in education, government, visa laws, business regulations, and national infrastructure and research. It is this section that provides considerable food for thought. Should teaching tenure be abolished, as they suggest; can copyright and patent laws be reformed for greater productivity? This new industrial revolution will “lead to sharp changes in the path of human development and history,” Brynjolfsson and McAfee assert, but they remain optimistic that the digital frontier can be made to work for us, not against, us.

In keeping with their message, this volume was published as an e-book to circumvent the costs, waiting time, and distribution limitations involved in traditional publishing. Straggling Luddites can get their hands on a hard copy, but engineers will more likely download it to an electronic reader – like everyone else.


Robin Tatu is Prism’s senior editorial consultant.


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