Economist and social commentator Cowen (Economics/George Mason Univ.; An Economist Gets Lunch: New Rules for Everyday Foodies, 2012, etc.) urges us to prepare for “the age of genius machines.”
The good news for the coming decades: Who you know, where you’re from or where you went to school will matter less than ever before when it comes to finding remunerative, satisfying work. Be advised, though: We’re headed for a “hyper-meritocracy,” where only the 10 to 15 percent of us whose skills complement intelligent machines will find that happy niche in a polarized labor market. To explain the shape of the future, Cowen looks to the world of freestyle chess, where collaboration between even a minimally competent player and a computer is already sufficiently powerful to reliably defeat a grandmaster. From the highly regularized environment of this game and others, he extrapolates a freestyle future where new technologies increasingly alter our interactions with each other and our world. A sprightly, widely allusive stylist, Cowen points to numerous present-day examples—we already live in a world where Google is the most frequently consulted “doctor,” where Match.com guides many love lives, where GPS directs our travels—to help sketch the contours of the future. He examines the implications of this new man/intelligent-machine alliance for the workplace in many sectors of our economy, where self-motivators and team workers will be especially prized; for education, where professors will become more like impresarios; and for science, where problems will become too complex for any single person to solve. This new world of work will feature vast income inequality—Cowen too readily dismisses the prospects for deep social unrest this may engender—and will leave much of the nation looking like today’s Texas, where the mix of cheap housing, plentiful jobs and lower-quality public services have accounted for the Lone Star boom, despite the national recession.
A buckle-your-seatbelts, swiftly moving tour of the new economic landscape.