The Second Machine Age : Book Review

Technology is woven into pretty much every element of our society. We all carry devices in our pockets that give us access to the majority of all human knowledge and a fair proportion of the current population. Our phones help us organise our lives, and in some cases are beginning to replace parts of them. But what does this mean for the future? Will these helpful gadgets continue to be our aides, or are we actually being slowly outmoded? In the Second Machine Age, authors Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee explore the impact that technology will have on the economy and workplace in the coming years…and in many ways it isn’t good news.

Second Machine Age

Both Brynjolfsson and McAfee hail from the MIT Centre for Digital Business, which gives them an impressive amount of insight to the emergent technologies that are transforming the way we live and ply our trades. At the start of the book they outline three principles which are creating this new landscape. The first is the incredible rate at which technology is improving its power and software capabilities. The second is the continued digitisation of knowledge and products, and the third is how most new innovations are actually recombined elements of previous ideas. In isolation any of these principles might just be seen as an interesting outlier, but when they combine it paints a picture where many jobs, and entire professions, could soon become replaceable by cheap, efficient, software AI or robots. In fact, in some cases, that’s already begun.

“On several different occasions I had my career flash before my eyes”

Now, we’ve all heard these types of stories before in the pages of science fiction novels, but what makes the Second Machine Age so fascinating is the amount of study that the authors have done into the socio-economic factors that are currently at play in the modern world. In fact the middle section of the books does get a little bogged down in economic theory, making the reading a little hard going at times, but it never descends into text book territory. The ideas put forward are clearly argued, backed with data, and make a lot of sense. The authors look at innovations such as Waze, the mapping app that employs the locations of its users to gauge how fast traffic is moving at any given time, and show how it is an example of the three principles. Self driving cars and intelligent computers are also explored, with discussions over how they will benefit people while also potentially threatening their livelihoods. Baxter, the cheap, programmable manufacturing robot is another example of the way repetitive, manual work will be done before too long. It all mounts up to a sea change in what we should expect the workplace to look like in the not so distant years ahead.  

Now I’ve been interested in this subject for some time. Last year I wrote an article for PC Advisor magazine here in the UK called ‘The Future of Robots‘ which explored many of the themes covered in this book. While it still remains a fascinating area, I have to admit that as a ‘knowledge worker’ in his early forties, the Second Machine Age is quite a scary book. On several different occasions I had my career flash before my eyes. Navigating the future does look like it will be tricky, and the luddite fear of the oncoming computer overlords is given plenty of fuel in this tome. That’s not to say though that this is some kind of techo-horror attack on the brave new world. In the closing chapters the authors lay out various ideas for how this could all be a very positive thing, and the potential growth of new employment sectors and trades. They even suggest areas you should look towards to avoid being retired by machine in a few years from now. In many ways it’s a Pandora’s box style book, one that releases many terrifying things into your mind, but at least contains hope.

You might not strictly enjoy the Second Machine Age, but a few years from now you could be very glad that you read it.

 

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The Apple Watch – is this the company’s mid-life crisis?

This week saw the official launch of Apple’s new Watch. It won’t be long now until you’ll be seeing people walking along the street staring at their wrists in consternation, rather than into the rectangular glow of their phones. Wearables are the future, and Apple is about to make it happen.

But I’m a little concerned about this.

apple-watch2

The keynote address from Tim Cook that released the Watch into the world felt somewhat stale and lacking in excitement. Many of the features had already been announced, and it was only the poorly judged decision to show Christie Turlington Burns parading around her shiny new digital timepiece while visiting a poverty stricken part of Africa, that was new. In fairness Ms Burns was training for a marathon that will raise money to alleviate the poverty and help young women safely deliver their babies, but the juxtaposition of a luxury device whose cost could pay for the medicines sorely lacking in the facilities was an odd one.

And in many ways that’s the problem with the Watch. It’s a confusing device.

On one hand it’s an exciting new territory for Apple, where it is not only competing with the Android Wear devices that launched last year, but also with established watch makers that have status and history which even eclipses that of this Californian upstart. Apple’s weight in the technology world and the widespread popularity of the iPhone also means that the Watch could finally usher in the age of wearables that’s been tantalisingly close for a few years now.

But conversely there was something missing from the launch, and the buzz since then in the media has been focussed around the new super-thin MacBook that was also revealed at the event. Apple’s videos were more obsessed with the metals than the actual usefulness of the product, and the heartbeat thing just looks like the kind of daft feature that Samsung usually cram into their products. Now, before I go any further, let me be clear that I like Smartwatches. I’ve used a couple in the past, and am sporting a Sony Smartwatch 3 while I type this. They are, of course, a luxury product (after all they’re merely a remote display for your phone) but the convenience offered by a simple glance at the wrist is a lot of fun, plus actually useful when you’re out and about, cooking, or otherwise dexterously challenged. Up until now though I’ve always enjoyed them as an idea, but spending up to £200 on one just felt like an ostentatious step too far. After all, that’s a fair chunk of the price of a new phone. Now the Apple Watch has entered the fray and it’s prices are, well, a bit silly.

apple-watch-selling-points

Although the base Sports models (which features the exact same technology as the more expensive versions) starts at £299, the normal dress Watch is around £500, and the Edition range starts at £8000 and goes up to a frankly ridiculous £13,500. A solid gold, multi-thousand pound watch, that will be out of date in a couple of years? Is that…cool?

I’ve used Macs for years and loved them. There are two iPads in our house at the moment and I can’t see them being replaced by any rival products in the future. I don’t use an iPhone any more, just because they’re too expensive and I prefer the direction Android is going. In short, I like Apple stuff. It’s a little disconcerting then that the Watch, which is the first new product category that has been developed and introduced under Tim Cook’s tenure, feels, well, a very middle-aged product. By that I don’t mean that it arrives heralded by minstrels and adorned with a leather codpiece. Rather that it’s the slightly tacky but thinks it’s cool kind of device that costs too much.

Apple_Watch

I’m sure it will sell bucket loads, Apple stuff always does, but is this the first chink in the company’s armour to appear in a long time? Is the self-satisfied gloating over it’s cost the sign that Cook and Co have lost touch with the general populace and now only make things for super-models who want to time their jogs? To be fair Apple stuff has always been pricey, but the Macs, iPhones, and even iPads had powerful features that made them useful in their own right. The Watch is a companion device to an iPhone that can pretty much only tell the time when separated from its pocket brain, and only while its battery remains intact.

I really don’t know how to feel about the Watch. Is it innovative or indulgent? A glimpse of the future, or the sign of a company beginning to believe its own hype?

I guess only time will tell.

What do you think about the Apple Watch? Do you want one? Let me know in the comments. 

When the Faith Falters

I’m in trouble.

It’s been seven years since I committed myself to the cause. In that time I have been transformed, seen incredible new things, and brought others to an understanding of the true way while rejoicing at their accepting this wonderful rebirth.

But now, it seems, my walk is faltering…inside are doubts I can’t suppress or ignore…my faith is beginning to fade.

How did it come to this? Oh Apple, why have thou forsaken me?

I think it began with the iPad.

The future, today!

Thanks to a generous birthday gift I was able to experience the new technology sensation shortly after it launched here in the UK back in 2010. I was immediately in love. The elegant dance of information beneath my fingers beguiled my skeptical mind and left me with the profound sensation that I was engaging with the future. It seemed a million miles from the Sinclair Research ZX Spectrum that had initially filled me with wonder all those years ago.

All was well until the release of it’s younger sibling twelve months later. I saw no need to upgrade as the addition of a camera was of no interest and the speed of my original iPad was more than satisfactory.  Then I tried to download the newly released iMovie and discovered that it was not available for my tablet. Surely there was some mistake? I was on the cutting edge – probably for the first time in my life – how could my hardware already be redundant? Then other non-iPad 1 apps started to appear…it had begun.

I comforted myself with the thoughts that I probably wouldn’t have used them anyway, and my iPad was still the brilliant machine that it always had been. The pain subsided, I learned to live within my reduced but still rich digital environment and the hurt passed into memory.

Then Apple did it again.

The future, once more...

iOS 5 sounded wonderful. The ability to have my documents synced between the iPad and my MacBook without any kind of fiddling around with importing or exporting was the kind of seamless thing I expected from the Cupertino boffins. And now here it was, all for the princely sum of nothing at all!

Only things weren’t quite how they seemed.

Within a short time of upgrading I noticed that my once very stable tablet was now crashing…a lot. Once it even locked up and required a reboot – something I’d hardly ever experienced in my time among the fruit people. The cause? iOS 5. Forums were alive with similar stories and the only fix it seemed was to wipe the disk and start again, then disable the iCloud settings. I duly did this and, in a fashion, it worked although my machine does still crash more than it used to – plus I can’t use the syncing feature for fear of the whole thing breaking again. I wasn’t even given the option of returning to the previous version of the iOS that worked perfectly with the iPad 1 because Apple don’t look back, only forward.

Then I discovered that upgrading my Macbook to the newly released OSX Lion would be problematic because its limited 2gb of internal memory means it will struggle to cope, plus the trackpad only supports two finger gestures which means it will miss most of the benefits that Lion offers.

So instead of a brave new world I was given a slightly more broken one. Not quite what I had hoped for.

Now I find myself in that awkward time when my main machine (the aforementioned old white Macbook) is beginning to show signs of age and will possibly need upgrading within the next year. But for the first time in a long, long time I’m actually finding myself question whether I want to pay premium prices for something that might be reduced to second-class citizenship a damn sight faster than I’d like. I’ve never regretted buying anything from Apple. Since my conversion I’ve bought and used heavily an iBook, Macbook, iPod touch Gen1, iPod  Gen5, iPod Shuffle, iPad, and Apple TV. All of which have been brilliant. But as times get tougher my eyes are starting to wander.

The problem I’m faced with (and I realise that in the grand scheme of things it’s a trifling one) is that buying something new from Apple these days has the strange effect of making you feel obsolete so very quickly. I fully accept that the thing that makes them great is that they push forward all the time, but if you’re like me and only earn a modest income that precludes you from buying a new model every two years then it can get strangely depressing. Has it always been like this? I don’t remember it as such.

The thing is I can’t go back to Windows. I just can’t. So where does that leave me?

The fabled 'Third' way...

In recent months I’ve started exploring the idea of Linux….and it’s quite interesting. Sure it doesn’t have the simplicity of OSX, nor the beauty. But it does actually work, is free, and because of it’s home-brew nature doesn’t leave you in the dust only months after you’ve paid a fortune for something. I don’t know if I’ll be able to withstand the constant fixing that it will no doubt require, but I’m finding the fresh environment, the surprising fun of reconnecting with the workings of a system, and the frontier attitude genuinely refreshing. How long this will last I don’t know. Those MacBook Airs are mighty tempting. But at least here I can enjoy the idea of salvaging old machines rather than saving for new ones…

What do you think?