Scholars Eric Brinolfsson and Andrew McAfee, The Next Machine Age, is a best-selling book about technologies and trends that will shape our immediate future. Now, as the authors argue, the time has come for the second machine age. Just as Watt’s steam engine freed humanity from the limitations of physical power, computers and high technology removed many of the limitations of intellectual power. This brings us to the field of yet unexplored discoveries and opportunities. After all, our intelligence is extremely important for the development of progress, and will lead to a new technological breakthrough that was previously impossible.
In our review, we talk about five important directions, described in the book, that will greatly affect our near future.
In 2010, Google announced the creation of fully autonomous cars, which, moreover, do not drive in the desert, but on real highways (the project was called “Chauffeur”). By 2012, they already had a small fleet of such cars, having traveled hundreds of thousands of miles without a person and with only two accidents. Self-driving cars from science fiction will soon be widespread, and this is just a small part of the digital revolution. Autonomous cars are only part of the bigger picture. For the time being, digital progress has been neither shaky nor shaky, but in the past few years it has accelerated, solving problems that seemed absolutely fantastic yesterday.
Digital progress is the beginning of the second machine age. Even peripherals such as printers exhibit capabilities that are almost science fiction. They make complex volumetric parts from plastic, metal, concrete and other materials. With a 3D printer, you can build a house or make an art product such as designer items. These technologies are developing rapidly, which indicates to us, according to the authors, the coming of the second machine age. After all, a few years ago we did not observe any sharp leaps, and technology and programming developed slowly and gradually.
In 1965, Gordon Moore, in his article “Sculpt More Components into Integrated Circuits,” for Electronics magazine, predicted that the number of transistors in a microprocessor chip would double every year. In 1975, he made adjustments and said that this doubling occurs every two years. Soon Moore’s Law became the main principle of semiconductor manufacturing, according to which microcircuits are becoming more powerful, and their cost is constantly falling. Digital doubling time is viewed in different ways. Moore changed the initial assumption from a year to two, and today the period for doubling the total computing power is considered to be 18 months. The authors write that there has never been a period for cars to become twice as fast or more economical in terms of fuel consumption in 50 years. Airplanes cannot fly twice as far, and trains cannot carry twice as many passengers. The doubling was only possible for the computer industry. Integrated circuits have far fewer limitations than cars or airplanes.
One of the key characteristics of technological progress is exponential growth. What is exponential growth? In order for the readers to have a clear idea of it, the authors cite a parable about chess in the book. The game of chess was invented in India in the 6th century AD. Its creator traveled around the country and demonstrated his game at the court of the Maharajah. The ruler was delighted and offered to reward the creator of the game with whatever he wishes. The creator said he only wants some rice to feed his family. The number will be determined by the chessboard. On one cell you need to put one grain of rice, on the second – twice as much, on the third – twice as much as on the second, and so on until the end, so that each cell receives twice as much as the previous one. The ruler was surprised at such modesty, but agreed. As a result, he gave the inventor about 4 billion grains of rice, about one large rice field. We are now in a different computation mode, in the second half of the chessboard. Innovation (self-propelled cars, auto-generated news, smart robots, ever more sophisticated consumer devices, etc.) and their relatively low cost are all completely different from what happened before. Technology is advancing faster and cheaper.
The most important events of our time are the creation of artificial intelligence and the unification of most of the people on the planet into a single digital network. Great progress, according to the authors, is observed in natural language processing, machine learning (the ability of a computer to automatically refine its methods and improve results with a larger data load). AI will help us in a wide variety of areas, from the most mundane to the essential. He will recommend us useful products, drive cars for us, and look for matches between jobs and applicants. But its enormous potential is not limited to this. Already today, digital technologies can restore hearing to the hearing impaired, and in the future they will be able to restore vision to the blind.
The Next Age of Machines is upbeat and inspiring against the backdrop of many gloomy prophecies of economists and futurists. The authors convincingly explain how, with the help of exponential improvements in technology, increasing volumes of digital information and continuous innovation, humanity can turn fiction into everyday reality – and much earlier than we can imagine. The main miracles are yet to come, the authors are sure!
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