Tuesday, April 22, 2014

The Age of Genius Machines

Average Is Over: Powering America Beyond the Age of the Great StagnationAverage Is Over: Powering America Beyond the Age of the Great Stagnation 
by Tyler Cowen

"It might be called the age of genius machines, and it will be the people who work with them that will rise.  One day soon we will look back and see that we produced two nations, a fantastically successful nation, working in the technologically dynamic sectors, and everyone else.  Average is over." (p 259)

Tyler Cowen is a writer, blogger, and an economist. It is in the latter role that he is foremost although his influential blog, Marginal Revolution, is renowned and I would certainly recommend it. He has written five books, not counting textbooks, and his latest is Average is Over: Powering America Beyond the Age of the Great Stagnation. While the title tells you about the main theme of the book I found that, beyond the economics of our current snail-like recovery from the depths of the recession, this book is a cornucopia of ideas about a diverse number of aspects of our life both now and in the future.

There are three Parts to the book which focus on first, the growing divide between those who earn more, much more than average and those who are below-average earners; second, the importance of machines and, in particular, games in our future; and third, the changing nature of work.
The opening chapters establish some of the important themes for the book by describing the current environment of stagnation and making the claim, that will be supported by examples throughout the book, that "new technologies already emerging will lead us out of" the current stagnant economy. In fact the economy is not stagnant for everyone, for those who have already adapted and are involved in the "right" sectors of science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM), in particular the growth in computers, the Internet, and most importantly intelligent machines. Cowen also introduces the metaphor of Chess that returns again and again throughout the book. You do not need to be an expert in the game to understand the power of intelligent machines that can 'crunch' the data necessary to defeat grandmasters every, every time they are challenged.

"As intelligent analysis machines become more powerful and more commonplace, the most obvious and direct beneficiaries will be the humans who are adept at working with computers and with related devices for communication and information processing. If a laborer can augment the value of a major tech improvement by even a small bit, she will likely earn well. (p 21)
He supports this with examples from areas like the growth of cell phones in both quantity and quality, the changes brought about by super-computers that play chess and for several years have been significantly better than the best grandmasters, and the changing nature of work with examples from companies at the forefront of the new age like Google and Amazon. The tests given prospective employees at Google are described and they seem like something out of a trial for Mensa. Are they easy?
"There's a whole book titled Are You Smart Enough to Work at Google? by William Poundstone. A few minutes reading it will make the answer clear to most readers, even if the word smart is not exactly the right word (Picasso was a genius but I doubt he could have landed a job at Google's Mountain View headquarters)." (p 35)
The days when you could just show up, role up your sleeves and start selling or doing any job are dwindling.

The changes discussed, documented, and commented upon in the first part of the book carry over into the latter two parts. There are and will be more changes to the nature of how you obtain a job --note the impact of social networking websites like Facebook or LinkedIn-- and your workplace whether it is an office, a factory or a sales counter. That the days of the lone scientist are over seems even more true as the complexity of machines as tools grows exponentially. Education faces changes as well due to the impact of the world of new machines. Cowen discusses the rise of MOOCS (massive online courses), information blogs, and the ubiquity of avenues for online education. But there is more.
"It is not just formal online education and blogs. Apps. TED lectures on YouTube, Twitter, reading Wikipedia, or just learning how to work and set up your iPad are all manifestations of this new world of competitive education, based on interaction with machine intelligence. These new methods of learning are all based on the principles of time-shifting (watch and listen when you want), user control, direct feedback, the construction of online communities, and the packaging of information into much smaller bits than the traditional lecture or textbook chapter." (p 181)

Late in the book Cowen discusses the potential changes for his own profession, the 'dismal science' of Economics. He anticipates that theoretical models will be challenged by more and more data-driven approaches. He says (and as someone with an Economics degree I read with interest) it will go as follows:
"(a) much better data, (b) higher standards for empirical tests, and (c) lots of growth in complex theory but not matched by a corresponding growth in impact. Mathematical economics, computational economics, complexity economics, and game theory continue to grow, as we would expect of a diverse and specialized discipline, but they are if anything losing relative ground in terms of influence. Economics is becoming less like Einstein or Euclid, and more like studying the digestive system of a starfish." (p 222)

The economics profession is like other social sciences and, like the economy as a whole, will be changing in ways that both take advantage and depend upon ever more powerful and complex computing and communication devices. There is much more in this challenging compendium of facts and ideas that will change our world. The direction of this change will determine where you and I will be and what we will do in the age of intelligent machines. In Average is Over you get one very knowledgeable economist's glimpse into that future.

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Brian Joseph said...

I am so interested in how the world works and where it is going. Thus I think that I would get a lot out of this book.

Without a doubt, in the past, great leaps in technology have led to increased prosperity (some nasty temporary setbacks aside). Those who adapt best prosper the most. Thus, I think that I agree with the author's main points.

James said...

Tyler Cowen follows changes like those discussed and much more. His reading is voluminous and I look to his blog, Marginal Revolution, for recommendations.