It would wise to revisit our assumptions about what computers can and cannot do. Many of us were surprised at the development of computers that could defeat a human at Chess or on the game-show Jeopardy! While those achievements were novel, we still generally understood that certain tasks remain essentially human. Computers follow an algorithm, but they do not learn, compose or adapt to scenarios they were not programmed to see.
In The Second Machine Age, the authors illustrate the remarkably rapid crumbling of barriers to automation with a ride in a Google Car. Only a few years ago the pursuit of self-driving automobiles was practically abandoned following a series of humiliating failures. Driving is a task which is not only computationally challenging; it is filled with surprises which cannot be programmed. Driving is the kind of pattern-recognition task which was generally assumed to lay beyond the frontier of automation.
Now Google regularly has visitors picked up from the airport in fully automated vehicles. Their progress in this area is sufficiently advanced that they have moved their efforts into the regulatory sphere, working to pass state laws ensuring that their technology can be deployed on the road.
And that’s not all. Right here in Chicago the folks at Narrative Science are automating journalism. This is not some distant goal being played out in a lab. A significant portion of what you read today, especially in sports or financial reporting, is generated by the computers at Narrative Science.
Their software combs through a data feed searching for relevant elements, then assembles them into a fully developed, publishable story. This gives a news organization, or a data analyst, access to more content than ever from which to identify meaning. The ways that humans use Narrative Science provide a glimpse into the future of employment for everyone who will benefit from the second machine age.
Narrative Science and other similar big-data tools do not eliminate journalists, but they change what a journalist does. That process stands to radically reduce the number of jobs in the field while making those jobs vastly more lucrative and interesting.
Gone are the days of typing up box scores or summarizing last night’s arrests. A journalist using a big data feed is looking for meaning, not content, and that’s a good summary of what high-value employment looks like in the second machine age. A journalist in this context is leveraging a machine to reduce drudgery, augmenting the challenge of finding value among a stream of data.
Similar roles will provide rewarding work training machines to perform new tasks; using machines to do things we’ve never done before, and interpreting machine output that we have never before seen. Those who work with machines are increasingly artists, whether in the literal sense or merely in the shape of their work. From software developers to Daft Punk, success in the second machine age means marrying creativity to automation.
Artists and entertainers were once poor almost by definition. The transition we’ve seen over the past half century has been so dramatic that we’ve largely forgotten that for all of human history performers were social outcasts, the lowest of the low. Celebrity culture is in many ways a by-product of the second machine age, not just because the bounty of this phenomenon creates more disposal income to be used for entertainment. Almost everything humans do successfully in this environment is at its core a creative or artistic pursuit.
The winners in the second machine age are all in some sense artists, whether they post their work on YouTube, github, or the New York Times. Those liberal arts degrees may deserve more respect than we’ve been giving them. The only job category reasonably secure from automation, at least for the near-term, may be poetry.
My automated replacement is likely to eliminate the job I did yesterday. Along the way it could open doors to work that I never imagined might exist. That work will likely be more independent, with a less dependable future, and more spectacular earnings than we have come to expect. It will also likely lead to shorter careers that start later, often preceded, interrupted, and followed by exploratory ventures that may or may not pan out.
This transition from the boring reliability of Industrial Age employment toward the terrifying excitement and reward of the digital age completely transforms our understanding of what government can and should do in the economy. We need to think a little harder about how to adapt our institutions to support our values in a rapidly transforming world.
For your consideration, let me present one of the winners in the second machine age. Jason Isbell is not Daft Punk. He is not cranking out digital tunes. Yet, he has leveraged the infrastructure of the digital age to build an impressive career for himself in an artistic niche that would never have existed in the past. Isbell is taking a music form that one might have expected would be wrecked by celebrity culture and participating in its renaissance. Jason Isbell is how one survives and succeeds in the second machine age, making a living as a poet.