Science fiction? Your wallet is soaking in it, as this textbook-ish look at the “second machine age” tells us.
It’s a highly disrupted world out there, and we have plenty of indexes to show it. Shopping malls used to open all the time; in the last decade, more than 20 percent have closed. Two-thirds of millennials don’t have landline phones. The hotel business is down, and cab drivers are suffering, all thanks to “gig economy” innovations like Airbnb and Uber, both of which offer a line to MIT School of Management researchers McAfee and Brynjolfsson’s (The Second Machine Age, 2014) thesis that “platforms”—organizations without inventory and sometimes without much of an organization—are likely to be more competitive than brick-and-mortar companies in the future economy. Among the components of that economy, the technological will be dominant. Machine learning, AI, and robotics will have further disruptive effects, sometimes displacing humans, while the winning firms of the near-term future will leverage these shifts to “bring together minds and machines, products and platforms, and the core and the crowd very differently than most do today.” Among the facets of this different world are algorithmically driven “automatic decisions,” by which Amazon cross-recommends products to shoppers and airfare prices respond to the laws of supply and demand; in time, machines will be coming up with proposals and projects “that people can extend and improve.” In chapter-closing exercises, the authors invite readers to ponder how all this applies to them (“which do you think are generally more biased: algorithms or humans”). The authors appear less interested in sociology than finance and to favor profits over the attendant human costs. On that note, fans of Citizens United will be relieved to hear that the corporation will endure. “The leading companies of the second machine age may look very different from those of the industrial era,” write the authors, “but they will almost all be easily recognizable as companies.”
Provocative reading for futurists, investors, and inventors.