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Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Book Review: Race Against the Machine

The average life time of people in industrial countries has increased over the last 100 years. An 80 year old American, European och Japanese  has lived 700.800 hours. About 9-10 percent of this life time have been used for "paid" work, that in the end has to finance the 91 percent "free" time including consumption, welfare services from education to medical care. Relative to our life length we work fewer hours, but on the other hand we have increased productivity with help of technology.
MIT researchers prof. Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee investigate in the their new e-book "Race Against the Machine", how the digital revolution is accelerating innovation, driving productivity, and irreversibly transforming employment and the economy. The authors focus on two important facts. 1) Technology continues to progress rapidly. In fact, the past decade has seen the fastest productivity growth since the 1960s, but 2) median wages and employment have both stagnated, leaving millions of people worse off than before. This presents a paradox: if technology and productivity are improving so much why are millions being left behind?
In the book, they document remarkable advances in digital technologies in particular. Innovations like IBM’s Watson, Google’s self-driving car, Apple’s Siri are turning science fiction into reality. Machines are doing more and more tasks that once only humans could do.

Robots are mentioned 11 times in the book as a technology that "have been substituting for routine tasks , displacing workers". Humanoid robots are described as "still quite primitive, with poor fine motor skills and a habit for falling down stairs."  The authors mention Foxconn's 1 million robot plan as an example for the ongoing productivity race even in China. As an example from the USA the authors mention US robotic startup Heartland Robotics providing "cheap robots-in-a-box, that make it possible for small business people to set up their own highly automated factory, dramatically reducing the cost and increasing the flexibility of manufacturing." In that case we should talk about the "Race with the Machine", a concept that is heavily promoted in Europe and Japan.
In summary the authors are optimistic that we can harness the benefits of accelerating innovation. The book is an important contribution to the ongoing debate about "The Real Job Threat", long term effects of ICT and public acceptance of robotics in peace and war.

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