Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee created a sensation by writing a book titled Second Machine Age. They argued that automation of cognitive tasks during the second machine age, machines will substitute human roles; but during the first industrial age, machines played complementary roles. They have argued that the growing role of software is the underlying cause of the second machine age. First of all, does this contrast of the roles of machines make sense? The next one is about how does it happen? Do machines just appear out of a creative spark of genius as a random process? Or is there a systematic path to the emergence of the next generation of machines that will keep unfolding?
Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee are not the first to create a sensation out of a new type of machine. The precursor to it is Time Magazine’s selection of personal computer as the Man of the year 1982. This was the first-time selection by the editors of a non-human recipient for the award. As the transformation through the emergence of new types of machines destroys existing products, jobs, and industries and opens up new ones making the future of work and prosperity uncertain, we need to have clarity. If we do not find answers to these questions, we fail to reason and predict the transformation, leading to uncertainty, apprehensiveness, and marginalization. Hence, this article sheds light on underlying patterns of dynamics.
- Roles of humans and machines?
- The reinvention of machines–the genesis of the second machine age
- When did machines become popular?—transformation effect of machine ages
- What is the machine age, and when did it start?—industrial revolutions
- What is the new machine age?—reinvention by changing the cognitive technology core
- What is the purpose of the second machine age?
- What is the next machine age?
Roles of humans and machines?
Human beings are after machines—and better machines. The purpose of inventing machines and making them better is to get jobs done better at less cost. Our process of doing many of the jobs began without the role of machines. For example, communicating messages, crunching numbers, or eating fruits began without the role of the machines. Sometimes, still, we perform them without the help of machines.
For the urge to get jobs done more effectively and efficiently, we build machines and delegate roles. As we keep inventing new devices and improving existing ones, there has been continued erosion of human roles in work.
Our ancestors started by delegating manipulating and energy-providing roles of machines. Hence, we invented needles, steam engines, and knives, among many others. These machines have been playing substituting roles for human engagement from the very beginning. Hence, the argument of the second machine age in providing unique substituting roles does not make sense. Substituting role is not new; instead, it’s the inherent purpose of building machines. For example, due to the invention of the steam engine, the role of the human in providing energy to production processes got substituted. Similarly, the invention of the telephone substituted the human role of traveling in delivering messages.
Of course, machines complement human roles in getting jobs done better. For example, due to the availability of different tools, human beings can perform jobs for which they were not eligible before. For instance, due to the automation of knowledge and ideas in manufacturing, humans with just innate abilities are qualified to manufacture many products like textiles, garments, and even automobiles.
The reinvention of machines–the genesis of the second machine age
As explained, human beings have a natural tendency to invent machines. The purpose is to find better means that they can perform their jobs better than before. And machines have both substituting and complementing roles—from the very beginning. Hence, neither replacing nor complementing the role of machines is new.
Well, what is the genesis of the second machine age? It happens that human beings do not keep inventing one after another machine. In addition to the invention, they have been focusing on evolution. For example, after its invention in 1886, the automobile has evolved over more than 130 years. Similarly, Radio, Television, Telephone, and Airplane, among others, have been evolving.
We have two critical means for evolving machines. The first one is incremental advancement. For making gradual advancements, we add new features and improve existing ones. Through incremental improvement, inventions grow and mature, taking an S-curve-like lifecycle. Hence, at maturity, evolution slows down. Fortunately, human beings have been succeeding in reinventing by changing the technology core—leading to the creation of a new wave of evolution. For example, the technology core of computers has been changed from mechanical components with transistor switches. Similarly, the camera has been reinvented due to the change of film with the image sensor.
More or less, all products have been reinvented several times, and this reinvention journey will keep continuing. This reinvention is at the core of the emergence of different generations of inventions—redefining human roles. For example, once we succeed in reinventing automobiles by changing the human-centric cognitive roles with sensors and software, we will get next-generation machines—intelligent ones. It happens to be that Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee have termed it the second machine age.
When did machines become popular?—transformational effect of machine ages
Machines have been popular since the very beginning of the presence of the human race on this planet. This may sound contrary to common belief. We often think that the machine age started with the first industrial revolution. Ironically, in the preindustrial era, our ancestors had a series of machines. The first industrial revolution began with the scaling up of the invention of the preindustrial age—the steam engine which was invented 50 BC.
Despite the very long history of the machine age, it became popular with the unfolding of the first industrial revolution. The high scale effect created from the science of thermodynamics and the formation of mechanical engineering out of Newtonian mechanics, steam engines and mechanization brought transformational impact to factories, transportation, and many other sectors. Similarly, the reinvention of energy production by changing the role of animals and steam engines with internal combustion engines and electricity started another wave of transformational effect—giving the name of the second industrial revolution. Subsequently, the reinvention of the telephone and computer through the change of mechanical and electro-mechanical technology cores with transistors started the third industrial revolution. This is the machine age of software and data.
By the way, the computer itself is now used to reinvent many products like typewriters, automobiles, and many others. The reinvention of machines by changing the role of physical components with software and digital content has brought a significant transformation effect, giving birth to the second machine age of Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee. Hence, the underlying cause of the popularity of the machine age is due to the growing transformation effect of machines out of reinvention—creating an increasing scale effect.
What is the machine age, and when did it start?—industrial revolutions
As explained, the machine age started in the preindustrial period, with the invention of how to produce fire or make stone stools. Unfortunately, instead of recognizing the history, we state that the machine age started with the first industrial evolution in 1760—out of the steam engine and mechanical engineering. This age continued till 1870, reaching the state of saturation due to the maturity of the steam engine and mechanization technology core. The second machine age started in the 1870s due to the reinvention of the internal combustion engine, electricity, and production line technology core. Subsequently, the third machine age emerged in the 1950s due to the invention of sensors, electronics, and software core. And the fourth industrial revolution is about to unfold as we keep progressing in reinventing products and processes by changing human-centric cognitive technology core with sensors and software—machine intelligence.
The second machine age of Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee started in the 1960s due to our ability to develop software to automate computational roles. It began with extensive computer systems like SAGE and simple calculators. Subsequently, the invention of the microprocessor, image and other sensors, and algorithms have been driving the process of building machines capable of taking over humans’ cognitive role.
What is the new machine age?—reinvention by changing the cognitive technology core
In getting our jobs done, humans provide the role of sensing, perceiving, computing, and decision making. We play these roles in both making and operating machines. For example, automobiles themselves cannot take us from one place to another. We need to drive by adding our cognitive roles to those dumb machines. The invention and continued progression of different technologies like sensors, microprocessors, algorithms, and machine learning have been forming a technology core for imitating humans’ cognitive role. Hence, like in the past, progress has started to reinvent machines by changing human-centric cognitive capability with this new technology core—cognitive. Hence, we have started witnessing next-generation machines—intelligent ones.
What is the purpose of the second machine age?
The question could be if intelligent machines take away human roles, what is the purpose of the second machine age. Like in the past, the purpose is to help us get our jobs done better. For example, the cognitive limitations of human drivers are the primary cause of road accidents—killing 1.3 million people every year and damaging as high as 3 percent of GDP. The underlying cause has been human drivers’ need for 700ms in responding to changing situations.
Hence, we are after cognitive technology core to reduce this latency, reduce death, lower property damage, and increase the throughput of high-ways. Similar to the example of automobiles, although the human role is vital in many applications, due to cognitive limitations, performance suffers. Hence, the purpose of the second machine age of Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee, or the intelligent machine age is to reinvent machines by changing the human role by cognitive technology core.
What is the next machine age?
All these machines that we have invented and reinvented consume materials and energy, cause harm to the environment and human life and offer limited performances. As a result, we cannot keep improving the quality of living standards for a growing number of fellow human beings. Hence, we need to keep improving existing machines and inventing new ones. As an improvement from incremental advancement saturates, we need to keep reinventing them. As a result, all devices have been and will keep evolving in episodic form. Therefore, there will be no end to having the next machine age. Hence, the human race has been after unfolding one after another machine age for improving machines to create increasing wealth from depleting resources while causing less harm.
As explained, the second machine age is the outcome of the natural progression of machines through reinvention. Hence, it’s the outcome of an underlying pattern of evolution of machines out of reinvention out of cognitive technology core. As technology offers the potential to overcome the limitations of humans’ cognitive abilities, future devices will be increasingly better than what we have now. Such advancement is vital. Hence, the human race will be finding machines to play complementary roles to keep opening an endless frontier of wealth creation. As a result, machine ages will keep unfolding due to the invention of new technologies creating revolutionary effects.