The 21st-Century Industrial Revolution

By Christina Birchfield | 1/16/2014

Blurred borders, increased technology—threat or opportunity? Tool of choice—hammer or smartphone?

 

Author and new York Times columnist Thomas Friedman sympathizes with those worried about what some are calling the next industrial revolution

Friedman recounts his favorite story from Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee’s new book, The Second Machine Age: Work, Progress, and Prosperity in a Time of Brilliant Technologies “When the Dutch chess grandmaster Jan Hein Donner was asked how he’d prepare for a chess match against a computer, like I.B.M.’s Deep Blue. Donner replied: ‘I would bring a hammer.’”

Indeed many workers of today might agree as they continue to lose jobs to robotic factories in which machines do the work people once did. Or as some knowledge worker jobs slip away to countries just a Skype away where wages are lower. The threats are not only to blue-collar jobs Friedman writes but also to white-collar jobs. I.B.M.’s Watson, the Jeopardy winning computer now works in the medical field helping doctors sift through reams of data to reach diagnosis.

Friedman writes that Donner isn’t alone in fantasizing that he’d like to smash some recent advances in software and automation. He says that in the last decade, we have moved from “‘connected to hyperconnected’ and, as a result, average is over, because employers now have so much easier, cheaper access to above-average software, automation and cheap genius from
abroad.”

In the Industrial Revolution, machines controlled by workers could do things faster, better, cheaper. The jacquard loom, for example, replaced many hand-loom weavers but still required people to operate the weaving machines.

This Second Machine Age focuses on the boundaries blurred by technology and on machine cognition— “We automate a lot more cognitive tasks.” Thus humans and machines may become interchangeable. And when the machines become less expensive to operate and maintain than human employees?

Friedman writes, “Soon everyone on the planet will have a smartphone, and every cash register, airplane engine, student iPad and thermostat will be broadcasting digital data via the Internet. All this data means we can instantly discover and analyze patterns, instantly replicate what is working on a global scale and instantly improve what isn’t working.”

This digitized area is ripe with opportunities for green living and monitoring and controlling life with a smaller carbon footprint, but it also is ripe for crime as the recent data thefts at major retailers, such as Target demonstrate.
 

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