Can we keep up with the machines?

von Denis Suarsana

In our #futurework20-interview, bestselling author Andrew McAfee talks about Europe’s role in the Second Machine Age and how we should reform our education system in order to keep up with the machines.

Andrew McAfee, Bestselling Author and MIT Economist (© Andrew McAfee)

In 2011 you co-authored Race Against The Machine together with Erik Brynjolfsson. In that book you wrote that workers need to learn to race with the machines in order not to lose the race against them. Now after almost ten years, how have we fared so far?

In some ways I think we have fared fairly well. I'm going to ignore the Covid-19 pandemic because it's just this extraordinary event that is not part of the long-term trend. The good news is that in most of the rich countries of the world, like Germany or the United States, we have not seen a massive unemployment crisis at all. Employment levels have been pretty healthy. Unemployment rates are low. So, when you look at those statistics, you don't really see massive technological unemployment. And like my colleague Bob Gordon [Robert J. Gordon, American economist] says, we don't have a job quantity problem. We don't have massive unemployment. We have a job quality problem.

In many countries, especially high income countries, we said in our book that the middle class really has been getting hollowed out and that we have a polarized economy where there's pretty healthy job growth and wage growth up high at the upper middle class and above, and there's a lot of job creation down low at low paid service jobs. It's that classic middle that's been getting hollowed out. That's a story about technology and globalization. Neither of those two forces is about to go away, so I don't expect this polarization to magically reverse itself. The conclusion is, as Eric and I wrote in 2011, that trying to be better than the machines at the things that the machines do well is a very bad strategy. We have to learn to bring together human skills and human talent with the things that the machines are good at so that we race with machines.

In his opening keynote at last year’s #futurework19, former chess world champion Garry Kasparov said that digital technologies are ubiquitous in the 21st century – with one exception: today’s classrooms haven’t changed since the 19th century. Is he right?

I think there's a lot of truth to that, unfortunately. What's interesting is that we see these innovators with education who are bringing together human skills and advanced technologies to find new ways to teach people and give them skills. For example, the world's most popular way to learn a second language now is a free app called Duolingo which is really good at teaching you a second language. It has learned how we like to learn, and it tailors its lessons to each individual based on the things they are forgetting or whether they need to be refreshed in some skills. So, apps like Duolingo are teaching us that we can educate people at great scale – also, with a lot of personalization. Now again, this doesn't mean that we should automate all of education, but should we be using more technology to deliver skills and training to people? Absolutely. Unfortunately, most of the innovation appears to be happening outside of the mainstream education industry, and I think that's a shame.

In Europe many people feel that we're losing the digital race against the US and China. What do you think about Europe’s position in this race? Is Europe equipped for what you call the Second Machine Age?

In some ways, Europe is very well equipped and I look for example at how well Germany has been dealing with employment during this pandemic. I’m talking about the structures that you have in place so that firms can continue to keep their people employed. Companies might only pay 60% of the wage for some period of time, but at least you don't have mass layoffs. I think that's working very well for you during the recession. That's a very, very smart institutional arrangement.

In general, it feels to me like in a lot of European countries, and I think about German speaking ones or the Scandinavian countries, there is a better sense of a shared destiny between the government, between companies and between workers. There's more of a feeling that we are all in this together and we're going to figure this out as a society. I wish there were more of that happening in the United States right now. So those are the things that I think really play to the advantage of Europe.
However, if you look at where the profound technological innovations are happening, if you look at where the fast growing private tech companies are, if you look at where the technology giants are, if you look at where the world's most talented and ambitious innovators and technologists want to go build their lives and build their careers, I say to you with all respect, it's really not Europe. And the gap between, for example, America and all of Europe put together is still a very, very large gap. And if I were a European policy maker, I would find that very, very worrying.

One thing we know from history is that when there's an incredibly powerful new technology wave, very often the world's leading country changes because it's the country that's best able to ride that new technology wave. So, when the first Industrial Revolution happened, the UK became the world's dominant country. When the second wave of the Industrial Revolution happened with electrification, and the internal combustion engine, the American economy became the world's largest economy. Here we are early in the 21st century. It really does appear like there is a race going on between China and the United States. Europe is, if anything, a very distant third in that race. And that would concern me.

On August 31, your new book “More From Less” gets released in Germany [Andrew McAfee, mehr aus weniger, DVA]. Your main argument is that we can have more growth while consuming less resources. How is this supposed to work?

I wrote the book because I came across a very strange phenomenon, that at first, I didn't believe. If you look at the data – from the UK, the US and from other high-income countries like Germany – you notice something really profound has happened in recent decades. We have decoupled economic growth from environmental harms. And that was not true for most of the industrial era. Our prosperity increased, but our environmental harms also increased. We polluted more. We took more materials, more resources from the planet, and we put a lot of ecosystems and animal species under terrible pressure and caused some extinctions.

My message with the book is not that everything is magically OK now. But we have finally figured out how to decouple increases in our prosperity and economic growth from environmental harms. And the data is quite clear on this. For example, the United States continues to grow its economy, but most categories of environmental harm are now decreasing overtime, not increasing. Pollution levels are way down, air pollution, land pollution, we are giving land back to nature which allows ecosystems to come back. We are preserving more, we're conserving more and this is hard for a lot of people to believe. But even after you take globalization into account, even after you account for the carbon that's embedded in imports to the United States, the total amount of carbon generated year after year in America is now going down. Our greenhouse gas emissions are now going down even as the economy grows. Now I want to be very, very clear: they are not going down quickly enough. I'm not saying that we have solved the climate crisis at all. But the trends are now heading in the right direction instead of the wrong one.

And my broadest message with the book is: when the trends are heading in the right direction, do more of what you're already doing. Follow that playbook more faithfully. Do the things that we know work. As opposed to trying to make radical changes. I think we know the playbook and I think we just need to be more diligent about following it. In the US, in Germany and around the world. We no longer have to face a tradeoff between improving the human condition and improving the state of nature. We used to think you can only pick one, but I think that's not true anymore.

Andrew McAfee is a bestselling author and Co-Founder and Co-Director of MIT Initiative on the Digital Economy. He is the opening keynote speaker at #futurework20. His new book More From Less gets released on August 31 in Germany [mehr aus weniger, DVA].


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