Erik Brynjolfsson: In A Race With Machines, Can We Keep Up?

Apr 21, 2017

Part 1 of the TED Radio Hour episode The Digital Industrial Revolution.

About Erik Brynjolfsson's TED Talk

MIT Professor Erik Brynjolfsson sees a bright future where machines serve as powerful tools and partners. But he says we can only shape this future if we keep up with the pace of innovation.

About Erik Brynjolfsson

Erik Brynjolfsson is a professor and director of the MIT Initiative on the Digital Economy. His work explores the effects of technology on business strategy, productivity and digital commerce. He is the co-author of The Second Machine Age: Work, Progress, and Prosperity in a Time of Brilliant Technologies; and Race Against the Machine.

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It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Guy Raz. So robots and machines - they've made our lives a lot better. But one day maybe sooner than we think, they could also be the end of us, the last thing we humans invent. But before we go there, let's just reflect on how far we've actually come. Because if you look back at the course of human history, for most of that time the way the average person lived didn't really change all that much.

ERIK BRYNJOLFSSON: Until the late 1700s when Watt developed a much better steam engine.

RAZ: This is Erik - is it Brynjolfsson? Is that right?

BRYNJOLFSSON: Yeah. A lot of consonants all next to each other. In Iceland, they find it very easy.

RAZ: Erik's is a professor at MIT and the Watt he was referring to - he's talking about James Watt, the inventor of the Watt steam engine which was basically a really efficient steam engine.

BRYNJOLFSSON: And that ignited what we call the first industrial revolution.

RAZ: After that, the second industrial revolution and with it electricity and the birth of a world wide economy which then led to the first machine age and eventually the information age.

BRYNJOLFSSON: And before that, living standards basically were flat. Since then, they've been growing 2 percent a year were about 30 times richer. So technology, machines is really, you know, arguably the most important thing that's happened to humanity in terms of our living standards. You could look to the introduction of digital computers in the 1950s.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: The electronic central computer...

BRYNJOLFSSON: The personal computer in the 1980s.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: On January 24, Apple Computer will introduce Macintosh.

BRYNJOLFSSON: When machines could first beat humans at games like chess in 1997.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: In an absolutely stunning, stunning 19-mover and Kasparov has just simply stormed away.

BRYNJOLFSSON: I think those were all milestones of increasing import, an increasingly large effect on the economy and our lives.

RAZ: Important because they prove that maybe one day they can be smarter than us?

BRYNJOLFSSON: No doubt about it. I mean, let's face it. They already are much smarter than us at so many things. I mean, try to multiply two 10-digit numbers with each other or, you know, sift through a thousand documents. So there's lots of things that machines are better at including in mental task than us. There's many more that they're not as good at, but the direction is pretty obvious and the progress is clear.

RAZ: On the show today, the Digital Industrial Revolution, ideas about the economic future we're creating, how we can shape it and if we'll find a place among the machines because if we can eventually create robots to do everything and to do it better, where does that leave us? A future of blissful human robot collaboration possible, yeah, or maybe something a little darker. Erik Brynjolfsson says right now we're at the beginning of a new machine age where technology is developing at such a rapid pace that it's kind of hard to keep up with.

BRYNJOLFSSON: It starts with a small, exponential trend. And, as you know, exponential trends double and double and double. And each time you can barely detect them when they're small and they start becoming overwhelming. This is the biggest challenge of our society over the next 10 years is going to be can we adapt fast enough?

RAZ: Here's Erik Brynjolfsson on the TED stage.


BRYNJOLFSSON: Computers get better, faster than anything else ever. A child's PlayStation today is more powerful than a military supercomputer from 1996. But our brains are wired for a linear world. As a result, exponential trends take us by surprise. I used to teach my students that there are some things, you know, computers just aren't good at like driving a car through traffic.

But, perhaps, the most important invention, the most important invention is machine learning. Consider one project - IBM's Watson. At first Watson wasn't very good, but it improved at a rate faster than any human could, and Watson beat the world Jeopardy champion. At age 7, Watson is still kind of in its childhood. Recently, its teachers let it surf the internet unsupervised. The next day, it started answering questions with profanities.


BRYNJOLFSSON: Damn. But, you know, Watson is growing up fast. It's being tested for jobs in call centers, and it's getting them. It's applying for legal, banking and medical jobs and getting some of them. Like the first two industrial revolutions, the full implications of the new machine age are going to take at least a century to fully play out, but they are staggering.

RAZ: How do you imagine the economy of the industrialized world changing over the next 20 to 25 years? Will it be noticeable?

BRYNJOLFSSON: It will it be huge. The economy in the next 20 to 25 years is going to change more than they did in the last 20, 25 years. And that's because these exponential trends are affecting a bigger and bigger share of the economy. So we have some huge disruptions in store, and I can't predict exactly what the innovations are going to be. If I did, I would have already invented them. But I think they'll be comparable to the innovations we saw in the past 20, 25 years if not greater.

RAZ: So like something as significant as is the internet presumably?

BRYNJOLFSSON: I'm sure that you know the Internet of Things sort of doesn't take a lot of creativity to see that coming down the pipeline where they'll be literally trillions of objects all connected in this digital infrastructures like the Earth growing a skin and a nervous system where all the objects can communicate with each other, and that's just one small part of this new world.

RAZ: I mean, we could have a future in the not too distant future in which truck drivers are out of work because trucks are automated and driverless. And not just truck drivers...

BRYNJOLFSSON: I think that's likely. No, I think that's likely.

RAZ: ...But university professors because every case study...

BRYNJOLFSSON: Whoa, wait a minute (laughter).

RAZ: ...And every book will will be processed by a machine. Every case study of a business problem will be studied by a machine which will then be able to be a better consultant than a human consultant, better journalists than me because they will be able to analyze every interview ever done. And that machine could maybe do a better job. I mean, that's not out of the realm of possibility.

BRYNJOLFSSON: It's not out of the realm of possibility, although you've got to think about the timelines. It's most useful to think about not jobs but tasks. And within any given job, there are lots of different tasks. If you're a radiologist maybe reading the images machines can be able to do that better, maybe making the broader diagnosis and communicating it to the patients.

For a long time, the humans are going to be better at that than the machines and so different parts of the job will be leveraged. In a way that's happened for centuries, and we've adapted. And it's made the people who had parts of their jobs automated more valuable and more productive to the extent that they are essential for the other components of their jobs.

RAZ: But, I mean, do you believe it's possible down the line that we could create an artificial thing of metal and ones and zeroes that is more empathetic and exercises better judgement than us and is just all around smarter than we are?

BRYNJOLFSSON: Well, I'm certain of it. There's no question that it's possible. I mean, you know, in between your ears is a proof that there's a physical object that can do all those things. And I don't think there's some ghost in there. I think it's made of atoms and obeys the laws of physics. So we know that it's feasible, according the laws of physics. Are we able to figure it out well enough? I think that's going to be a matter of time.


BRYNJOLFSSON: The new machine age can be dated to a day 15 years ago when Garry Kasparov, the world chess champion played Deep Blue, a supercomputer. The machine won that day, and today a chess program running on a cell phone can beat a human grandmaster. It got so bad that when he was asked what strategy he would use against a computer, Hein Donner, the Dutch grandmaster, replied I'd bring a hammer.


BRYNJOLFSSON: But today a computer is no longer the world chess champion, neither is a human because Kasparov organized a freestyle tournament where teams of humans and computers could work together. And the winning team had no grandmaster and it had no supercomputer. What they had was better teamwork, and they showed that a team of humans and computers working together could beat any computer or any human working alone. Racing with the machine beats racing against the machine. Technology is not destiny. We shape our destiny.

RAZ: Yeah. I mean, it makes total sense that we are going to be working with machines in ways that we can't even imagine.

BRYNJOLFSSON: Yeah. And I think we'll be working very closely with machines in a couple of different ways. I mean, one is a little bit like the way we're doing it now where we interact with them, where we ask machines to do some data analysis. And there'll be more and more of a division of labor where we ask the questions, and the machines provide the answers. Pablo Picasso once berated computers saying, well, they're not very interesting.

All they do is provide answers. And, you know, he had a point, that the really interesting and important part of work is asking the right questions and that's - for a long time that's still going to be the domain of humans. Going a little further into the future, we'll start literally connecting to machines. Some of my colleagues at MIT here - some of them are working on a neural mesh that connects directly to your brain, and they've already done it with some disabled people and allowed them to move objects just by thinking.

So right now, the bandwidth is pretty slow. You can type maybe I think it's about 10 words per minute with these brain meshes, but you can see where the future is going with that as well.

RAZ: I mean, I hate to sound pessimistic because by nature I try to be optimistic, but I ask myself this question a lot which is, you know, is this the future we want? Have we gotten to a place where the train has left the station where we don't really have much of a choice about where that future is headed?

BRYNJOLFSSON: Well, let me try and cheer you up a little bit. Let's just step back and look at the fundamental.

RAZ: Yeah, please.

BRYNJOLFSSON: What are you and I talking about? We're talking about a world with vastly more wealth, vastly more power to solve all sorts of problems, vastly less need for us to work. Most routine drudgery could be eliminated. Shame on us. Shame on us if we mess that up and turn that into a bad thing. I mean, wouldn't that be the weirdest irony in the world that we take more wealth and less work and say, oh, what a terrible thing? I think we could essentially eliminate poverty from planet Earth. We could cure most diseases.

In the global millennium goals, we're on track to beat them and eliminate severe poverty. So there are lots of positive trends. I think the world in 25 years could be a much better version of the world we have today. But the role of humans would still be fundamentally at the center of that.

RAZ: Erik Brynjolfsson He's a professor and director of the MIT Initiative on the digital economy. You can see his full talk at On the show today, ideas about the digital industrial revolution. In a moment why this is all very, very good and very, very bad. I'm Guy Raz, and you're listening to the TED Radio Hour from NPR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.