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Promises and Perils of Unfolding Digital Revolution

(October 24, 2011)

New E-Book Spells out Promises and Perils of Unfolding Digital Revolution;
MIT Sloan School of Management experts release Race Against the Machine today

As a technology-driven industrial revolution continues to create waves of innovation while also displacing many workers, a new e-book by two MIT Sloan School of Management experts outlines how individuals and businesses alike can seize the power of computers and networks to create jobs and opportunities.

"The difference is that in the past, these changes happened over the course of a century or more" "The book outlines ways for people to race using machines, instead of against them," said MIT Sloan Professor Erik Brynjolfsson, director of the MIT Center for Digital Business, who co-authored the e-book with the Center's associate director, Andrew McAfee. "There's never been a better time to be a talented entrepreneur or a worse time to be a worker with no special skills. We must help people move from the second category to the first one." Detailing how real incomes were falling and unemployment rising even before the Great Recession, Race Against the Machine challenges the increasingly-common notion that the core problem is stagnation in technology and innovation.

"Technological innovation is not slowing down America; it's speeding up. Computers can now drive cars, translate among languages effectively, and beat the best human Jeopardy! players. But while digital progress grows the overall economic pie, it can do so while leaving some people -- even a lot of them -- worse off," said McAfee, who is also a principal research scientist at MIT. "To find the best ways to help them, we have to first correctly diagnose the problem. Erik and I are strong digital optimists, but we wrote this book to highlight the fact that the average worker is losing ground to cutting-edge technologies."

New technology has always led to job displacement. "At least since the followers of Ned Ludd smashed mechanized looms in 1811, workers have worried about automation destroying jobs." An example of such fundamental shifts in the nature of work is that while about 90 percent of Americans worked in agriculture in the 19th century, only about 2 percent do so today. Many former farm workers found new and better jobs in emerging sectors, such as the automobile industry. "The difference is that in the past, these changes happened over the course of a century or more," said Brynjolfsson. "The core problem today is that our skills and institutions -- the human and organizational capital that complement technology -- have not kept up. If anything, the gulf is on track to widen. We need a similar flourishing of new industries and better ways to use technology that put people to work."

The authors agree that many workers are losing the battle with the machine. But they see hope in the fundamental fact that machines will never be able to fully replace the essence of human value. "While computers win at routine processing, repetitive arithmetic, and error-free consistency and are quickly getting better at complex communication and pattern matching, they lack intuition and creativity and are lost when asked to work even a little outside a predefined domain," the book says. "Fortunately, humans are strongest exactly where computers are weak, creating a potentially beautiful partnership."

With computers becoming increasingly powerful every year, "we're at a unique point in human history: machines are encroaching on skills that used to belong to people alone" said McAfee. "We haven't been here before and we need to think long and hard about how to respond, how to make sure that computers and people race ahead together, instead of against each other" To help with this work, Race Against the Machine offers recommendations in two general areas. The first focuses on human capital, on helping people develop skills "so that they can complement, rather than be replaced by, the technology," as Brynjolfsson put it. The second set of recommendations outlines steps to encourage entrepreneurs to develop more and better ways to combine technology and labor to create value. "They can develop new business models that combine the swelling numbers of mid-skilled workers with ever-cheaper technology to create value," according to the book.

"Digital progress is so rapid and relentless that people and organizations are having a hard time keeping up," said Brynjolfsson. "Machines can become our allies, but only if we change the way we're doing things now." Like earlier industrial revolutions, this technology-driven one will play out over decades. Also like earlier periods of industrial change, this one will "lead to sharp changes in the path of human development and history," according to the book. "The twists and disruptions will not always be easy to navigate. But we are confident that most of these changes will be beneficial ones, and that we and our world will prosper on the digital frontier."

The ebook, Race Against the Machine: How the digital revolution is accelerating innovation, driving productivity and irreversibly transforming employment and the economy is available via and at

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