Last week, Roosevelt Institute Senior Fellow Bo Cutter’s latest installment of the Next American Economy breakfast series featured Andrew McAfee, principal research scientist at MIT’s Center for Digital Business, discussing his book The Race Against the Machine. A self-proclaimed technology optimist, McAfee lays out in stark and sobering terms the workforce displacement that has already taken place and will continue as the speed of technological innovation only increases. Watch here as McAfee relates how chess, rice, and, an Indian emperor help explain why computers keep getting twice as fast every year:
While computers are able to take on increasingly complicated tasks (like becoming a Jeopardy champion), McAfee notes that there are still a few places where humans can hold their own against their soon-to-be cyber overlords, namely complex communication, advanced pattern recognition, and entrepreneurship. However, examples of “science fiction becoming reality,” like the Google Car and nearly pitch-perfect language translation software, make clear that computers “are eating away at those advantages very quickly.” Bottom line: As a result of this “unprecedented digital encroachment,” the bundle of skills that the typical American worker has to offer potential employers is dwindling.
On the upside, McAfee makes clear that technological progress will continue to make us a more productive and rich society. But with the way things are wired right now, not everyone will get to enjoy the party. McAfee points out that while GDP and even mean income is generally increasing, median income has actually declined.
So what can we do about all this? McAfee offers up three places to start. First, invest in America’s infrastructure. Second, use appropriate policy tools (read: taxes) to deal with what we know will be increasing distance between haves and have-nots. Finally, increase innovation in our education system at all levels. McAfee believes our fate is in our own hands and that “the choices that we make as a society and an economy over the next generation are really going to strongly determine whether it’s a utopian or dystopian future that we head into.”