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Important idea, perhaps a little repetitive
on 16 September 2013
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"The key questions will be: Are you good at working with intelligent machines or not? Are your skills a complement to the skills of the computer, or is the computer doing better without you? Worst of all, are you competing against the computer?"
If you were paired with a machine to do a task, could together you do better than the machine alone? For Cowen, the answer matters more than you might think - with intelligent machines, he believes, lies the answer to The Great Stagnation he has worried about in the past.
There are two types of people in the world, he argues; those who can increase the productivity of machines, and those who will be replaced by them. One group will earn increasingly higher wages and rewards; the other will earn relatively less and less. Average is over, and though machines won't replace human labour entirely, as the Luddites feared, they will completely change how labour is allocated.
This is not to say that computer programmers are the only ones who will make money, of course. Rather, Cowen thinks of working with machines more broadly; using the automatic checkouts in supermarkets, for example, or adapting your smartphone to improve workflow. It is these teams of humans and machines, he argues, that can really make our productivity soar. This is true of life in general, he says, not just the workplace, whether it be relationships, hobbies, or education.
It's a provocative idea, particularly in light of today's concerns over inequality. The Economist this week, for example, quotes Daimler as describing their employees as "robot farming" because the workers are there to shepherd the robots as they do the work; presumably the ratio of sheep to shepherds is diminishing. Cowen has a point; the highest payoff activities in life will always be those that cannot be done by another person or machine.
The rest of the book is largely reiterating this core point, giving different applications and extensions. Those who find it interesting will likely read the rest with interest, while others may find some of the chapters repetitive. Nevertheless, Cowen makes and interesting - and important - point, regardless of where you fall on the political spectrum.