Will they take our jobs? MIT economist Andrew McAfee on driverless cars, wireless fishermen, and the second machine age.

Author:Mangu-Ward, Katherine
Position:Interview
 
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Massachusetts Institute of Technology economist Andrew McAfee hasn't been replaced by a robot just yet. The following interview was conducted between two humans. Neither of the humans needed to bother to remember what was said, however: We recorded the conversation on an iPhone app, essentially outsourcing memory to a computer. Pre-interview research was conducted with the aid of Google--no humans required there either, just well-crafted algorithms pointing in the direction of McAfee's blog, popular TED Talks about automation and unemployment, and Amazon author pages. But the resulting MP3 file? It was transcribed by a human intern. Accuracy was important, and commercially available voice-to-text programs just aren't good enough yet. Which is a bit disappointing. Especially for the intern.

The rapidly shifting interplay between tasks that humans still do and tasks we delegate to our automated servants should feel like a familiar progression. In the first machine age--the Industrial Revolution--we replaced human brawn with steam power. But in so doing, we wound up creating more demand for labor: We needed people to tend to the increasingly complex machines, and to staff entire new industries that arose once humans were freed from the burden of lifting heavy stuff.

We continue to contract out our need for brawn to machines, say McAfee and his co-author Erik Brynjolfsson, but we have also started replacing human brains with processing power. In their 2014 book, The Second Machine Age, the economists describe a new world driven by the relentless doubling of computer processing capacity, known as Moore's Law. McAfee, who has a Ph.D. from Harvard Business School, cheerily anticipates a fresh profusion of consumer goods from this machine age, similar to the glut produced by the last one. But he says he's no Candide--like many, he predicts that this time there will be no compensating boom in demand for human labor and he's worried about the social and economic effects of widespread unemployment. Is he right? Are things really different this time around?

In January, Managing Editor Katherine Mangu-Ward spoke with McAfee about the economics of the robot revolution.

reason: You rode in the Google driverless car. Tell me about it.

Andrew McAfee: The experience went from terrifying to passionately interesting to boring in the space of one ride.

reason: Why was that?

McAfee: When the guy who was driving the car hit the big red button and took his hands off the wheel on the highway, that was a white-fingernail moment, reason: Is there literally a big cartoon red button?

McAfee: There's honestly a big cartoon red button on the dashboard.

reason: That's delightful. So he hits the button--

McAfee:--and takes his hands and feet off the controls, and we're going at highway speeds in a completely self-guided car. That was a little scary. Very quickly that passed, and then it became super interesting, because I felt like an astronaut. I'm having this really uncommon experience, and after a while, it sunk in that I was in a car that was obeying all relevant statutes, not weaving, not seizing opportunities in the right-hand lane, going down the road at 55 miles per hour. I mean this as the highest compliment: It was a godawful boring ride.

reason: What are some places in everyday life where people may be undervaluing the extent to which the robots or machines have already taken our jobs or taken over our lives?

McAfee: I won't say "taken our jobs," because I still have one. A lot of these changes don't keep screaming at you. They happen kind of gradually. They're bit by bit, but then you look up and you're living your life pretty differently than you did a few years ago.

For me, professionally, if I could sit down and look at what I was doing a decade ago or 15 years ago, I think it'd be night-and-day different. When I sit down to start writing something or to learn something, I basically have 30 tabs open on my browser. I'm searching for a little stat, or I pull up a number from the St. Louis Fed that's got this great data repository. I don't go to the library; I don't fire off requests to research librarians. I use a research assistant for some things, but not for "hunt down this fact for me," simply because it's easier and quicker for me to do it myself. When you've got the world's knowledge at your fingertips all the time and you're supposed to be doing knowledge work, it really does change the way things happen.

reason: And how do you think that applies--if it does--to people who are doing a different kind of job? There are some guys in reason's office right now assembling a million new desk chairs. It looks like their jobs aren't very different. Am I wrong?

McAfee: I think that part of their job is probably not very different, but how they got their day's schedule, how they communicate with the head office, how they alert them that the job is done, the extent to which they're monitored--maybe their truck has a GPS device in it so headquarters knows where they are--I think those things are actually pretty big changes.

In long-haul trucking, for example, the industry has actually transformed itself, and trucking companies started owning trucks again instead of giving them to subcontractors, mainly because they could monitor the...

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