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Chris Neale

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This book was recommended by a friend and the premise of an investigation into how work, progress and prosperity have changed and are changing still was something that interested me….as I’m not independently wealthy or a lottery winner…so I’ll be working for the next 30 years or so!

The book is written by 2 MIT research scientists…hence nearly 100 pages of references, but those are kept for the end for anyone who wants to check their homework and you can skip the graphs if that’s not your thing.

They start by first showing how until we developed tools and principally the industrial revolution there was very little progress in humans development or population growth for 8000 years!

Jump forward to pretty recently where they witnessed, in 2004, of 15 entrants to an autonomous vehicle competition run by DARPA ended in the prize left unclaimed. The “winning” vehicle only managed 7.4miles of the 150 mile course before getting stuck on an embankment (it did better than those that failed to start and the one that flipped over in the starting area).<P> You may be thinking it’s a short book, but unless you’ve been in a cave then you wouldn’t be surprised that only 8 years later the authors were sat in a Google self driving car on Highway 101 California. Things are accelerating, still, if maybe not at Moore’s law’s speed exactly.

They do well to highlight that robots and automation are better fits for certain jobs and tasks than others and that we aren’t going to end up being used as batteries for the robots like in The Matrix any time soon.

That said, much like the jobs made redundant by printing presses or weaving machines, the same is happening now. But even though it’s almost 200 years later….”we” as societies and governments are bad at realising this and planning for the skills we will need and how to shift workers or create jobs in areas which will support new technologies.

Their analysis of how, nowadays the automation is different and that, historically even if a mill owner or other entrepreneur came up with an idea that leveraged a new General Purpose Technology (like steam or electricity) it still brought jobs and prosperity and some “trickle down” with a reasonable spread of the bounty of this new innovation.

Nowadays Uber/AirBNB/Waze etc. Leverage free or existing resources that can be consumed automatically and with only a few employees in a startup. This plus the connected nature of the world today means physical/geographical boundaries no longer limit how many consumers they can reach.

So when a facebook/google/Uber gets millions or even billions of users that no longer means tens of thousands of people share in the profit, it is concentrated in a small group with the largest share going to the CEO.

There is a lot of economics in the book and that has never been something I’ve studied closely before but the majority of it is interesting and relevant. It helps show how some trends are ok for now, others more pressing and worrying and how workers who feel “forgotten” or abandoned, be it by progress or globalisation are inclined more to nationalism and protectionism. There is plenty of politics in the book too, which is impossible to avoid when talking about economics, jobs and inevitably taxes too. I agreed with most of their suggestions on how to skill up the humans of the future, how human+robot/computer is actually stronger than simply human vs computer and the possible necessity for something like a national wage to prevent traditional welfare and promote working.

It took me a while, but I’d thoroughly recommend it if you have even a little interest in how we got here, where we’re going or even what your kids should be learning for tomorrow!