Will machines with AI replace humans? The Second Machine Age

Will robots and machines with artificial intelligence replace people? What does The Second Machine Age by Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee say?

Artificial intelligence is increasingly used to complete human activities in customer service departments as I wrote previously.

Where the first machine overcame the limitation of our muscles, today’s technologies will overcome the limitation of our brain

The rise of artificial intelligence (AI) and its impact on our society becomes mainstream in business. For many it invokes the fear that ultimately machines with AI will fully replace us.

In 2014, the release of “The Second Machine Age: Work, Progress, and Prosperity in a Time of Brilliant Technologies” by Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee, both from the technology leading MIT Center for Digital Business, raised questions and concerns. I’ve read the book and here is my take on “The Second Machine Age” and the rise of AI.

The Second Machine Age: an optimistic book

The Second Machine Age Work Progress and Prosperity in a Time of Brilliant Technologies
The Second Machine Age Work Progress and Prosperity in a Time of Brilliant Technologies

The Second Machine Age” is an optimistic book on the advent of digital technologies and their impact on society, economic progress and all kinds of professions.

In September 2014, the McKinsey Quarterly took a C-suite angle asking the Second Machine Age authors the question “Can software substitute for the responsibilities of senior managers in their roles at the top of today’s biggest corporations? “ and posted the answers in an article, Artificial intelligence meets the C-suite.

BIG topics as you can imagine. Therefore let me take a crack at it, starting with my views on what the book is telling us and my take on this.

What The Second Machine Age tells us

The Watt steam engine, introduced in year 1775 “bent the curve” of both Human Social Development index and the Human Population.

The book states that the steam engine and the associated technologies of the Industrial Revolution were the game changers that led to exponential increase in both population and living standards / income.

World population and social development index – source Wisdomchief
World population and social development index – source Wisdomchief

Now we are at a new inflection point, in the early stage of a shift as profound as that brought on by the Industrial Revolution.

Where the first machine overcame the limitation of our muscles, today’s technologies will overcome the limitation of our brain.

Leading us to this shift are:

  1. the technological trends of Artificial Intelligence,
  2. the digitization of just about everything and
  3. the exponential IT progress. Think about Gartner’s Nexus of Forces (Cloud, Social, Mobile and Big Data Analytics) or IDC’s third platform (economy).

Machine resemblance and the common digital network

This is leading us to the “the 2nd half of the chessboard” where changes come exponentially as, per Ray Kurzweil’s Law of Accelerating Returns, the rate of technological progress is no longer linear but exponential when a domain shifts from analog to digital.

The authors state that our generation will experience two amazing events in history:

  1. the creation of Machine Intelligence (they describe current technology more like Machine Resemblance) and
  2. the connection of all humans via a common digital network.

Note that on the same topic Ray Kurzweil, a leading inventor, thinker and futurologist, places the “Singularity” at year 2045 – this is the year when AI-based thinking machine will be exceeding human intellectual capabilities, according to Kurzweil, who  invented Optical Character Recognition (OCR), used extensively in Document Imaging, and Voice Recognition.

Embracing innovation

The work of innovation is the most powerful and fundamental work that we, humans, can do

As thinking machines are taking our jobs, what do we humans do? Brynjolfsson and McAfee have an answer to that.

As more work gets done by machines, people can spend more time on other activities like leisure and amusement but also invention and exploration.

They say that economies don’t run on energy, capital, or labor but actually run on ideas. So the work of innovation is the most powerful and fundamental work that we, humans, can do. McAfee had an interesting TED talk in June 2012 “Are the Droid taking our Jobs”.

My take on The Second Machine Age

We all have personal experiences with new technologies providing assistance or replacing a human in our daily lives:

  • We can use a machine to translate text (and the latest Skype beta does simultaneous translation of voice).
  • We can reliably predict how long it will take us to drive somewhere by using Siri or Google Maps
  • Our most recent luxury car can park itself neatly on the street.
Our generation will experience the creation of Machine Intelligence and the connection of all humans via a common digital network

We experience the Law of Accelerating Returns first hand so we get that what we see now is just an appetizer for what is coming next: we’ve also heard of IBM Watson beating the Jeopardy quiz human champions in 2011 and the Google Self-Driving Car driving itself nicely in the USA for the last few years.

In the meantime Enterprise Information Technology has been mostly automating repetitive and routine tasks. But the Enterprise world is also increasingly going digital and the amazing power of Artificial Intelligence is starting to come in the Enterprise as well. For example, I described a technology allowing Customer Interaction automation in a prior post and IBM Watson is finding applications in assisting decisions in the medical field.

The Second Machine Age will make you think differently about important things to consider in the future, like education and career choices. It will also make you thing about what companies you should associate yourself – think digitization and Artificial Intelligence!

The author, Roland Simonis has over 20 years of ECM Capture experience, is the author of multiple white papers and a regular speaker at ECM and SharePoint conferences.