Wednesday, September 24, 2014

"The MIT Second Machine Age Conference"

From Irving Wladawsky-Berger:
A couple of weeks ago I attended MIT’s Second Machine Age Conference, an event inspired by the best-selling book of the same title published earlier this year by MIT’s Erik Brynjolffson and Andy McAfee.  The conference presented some of the leading-edge research that’s ushering the emerging second machine age, and explored its impact on the economy and society.  It was quite an interesting event.  Let me discuss a few of the presentations as well as my overall impressions. 

In his opening keynote, Brynjolffson explained what the second machine age is all about.  “Like steam power and electricity before it, the explosion of digitally enabled technologies is radically transforming the landscape of human endeavor.  Astonishing progress in robotics, automation, and access to information presents major challenges for institutions from small businesses and communities to large corporations and governments, but it also creates opportunities to rethink how we live and work in profoundly positive ways.” 

The machines of the industrial economy, - the first age, - made up for our physical limitations, - steam engines enhanced our physical power, railroads and cars helped us go faster, and airplanes gave us the ability to fly.  For the most part, they complemented, rather than replaced humans.  The second age machines are now enhancing our cognitive powers, giving us the ability to process vast amounts of information and make ever more complex decisions.  They’re being increasingly applied to activities requiring intelligence and cognitive capabilities that not long ago were viewed as the exclusive domain of humans.  Will these second age machines complement or replace humans?
Brynjolfsson said that he’s amazed at the advances in machine intelligence in the last decade.  They’re able to sense and interact with the physical world, like the Google self-driving cars.  Their vision and fine motor control has significantly advanced, like Baxter, the interactive production robot from Rethink Robotics.  We’re now able to communicate in natural language with smartphone apps and customer service applications.  And question-answering systems like IBM’s Watson are enabling us to solve increasingly complex problems. 

“We’re in the midst of the greatest one-time event in history!,” he added.  But, what does this mean for the economy?  On the one hand, we have a bounty of highly sophisticated and inexpensive technologies, as exemplified by a Radio Shack ad from the 1980s, where the functions of just about every single one of the devices then on sale are now available in our smartphones, - computer, phone, messages answering, music, video and audio recorders, and so on....MUCH MORE