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The Blip

Illustration by Mario Hugo  

There are some people, scattered around this planet, for whom the question of economic growth many years hence is urgently important, for whom it seems to blot out all other matters. Economists, and think-tankers, and environmentalists concerned with climate change, and the dreamier kind of CNBC host, yes. But also ordinary people—liberals alarmed about their children’s student debt or conservatives outraged about the national deficit—who are not convinced that we will grow rich enough to pay these bills in the future, who hold ambient anxieties that things are getting not better but worse.

Among growth-worriers, there is a ­science-fiction streak. To be possessed by nightmares about the future requires that one be dreaming about the future in the first place. I don’t think I have had a single conversation about long-term economic growth that did not involve a detour into the matter of robots. Not robotization, but robots: how their minds worked, their strategies when engaged in a game of chess. Very strong and well-defended opinions about the driverless car are held. People in this camp are open to the possibility that the future could be very different from the present, and so robots, ­evocative of a wholly transformed world—perhaps for good, perhaps not—are of special interest. One leading theorist in the Gordon camp urged me to read a Carter-era text called The Zero Sum ­Society, which suggests a grim dystopia that emerges once economic growth hits zero point zero, at which moment to gain anything requires that you take it from somebody else. “Once you start to think about growth,” the Nobel laureate Robert Lucas has said, “it is hard to think about anything else.”

Earlier this year, Gordon flew out to Long Beach to give a TED talk detailing his theory and its implications. TED’s audience is so primed for optimism about the future that Gordon, a rebuker of futurists, knew before he began that he’d lost the room—not in a Seth MacFarlane–at–the–Academy Awards way, but in a Bill O’Reilly–at–Al Sharpton’s–political–group kind of way, as a matter of tribal identity. TED had invited MIT’s Erik Brynjolfsson, an expert in the economics of technology and a known optimist about future breakthroughs, to give the counterpoint address. Gordon (short, round, and earnest) projects a donnish air; Brynjolfsson (tall, redheaded, bearded), the kind of cocky casualness that in Silicon Valley scans as cool. Gordon gave his account; introduced his graph; emphasized the abject poverty of life at the turn of the twentieth century; demonstrated how each American deficiency in education, inequality, demographics limited how much our economy might grow—and then, sensing that the crowd was not all that much moved, sat back to watch Brynjolfsson make the case against.

Brynjolfsson let a long beat elapse. “Growth is not dead,” he said casually, and then he grinned a little bit, and the audience laughed, and the tension that had lingered after Gordon’s pessimism dissipated. Brynjolfsson had the aspirational TED inflection down cold: “Technology is not destiny,” he said. “We shape our destiny.”

The second industrial revolution itself, he said, proved the point. After factories were electrified, Brynjolfsson explained, “the amazing thing is productivity didn’t increase in those factories for 30 years—30 years!” It sometimes take a while for humans to figure out how to use innovations, he said, and perhaps we are just now beginning to comprehend the full possibilities of computerization. In Brynjolfsson’s view, we are now in the beginnings of the new machine age, an extended moment of revolution in artificial intelligence. “A child’s PlayStation,” he said, is more powerful than a military super­computer from 1996; a chess program contained on a cell phone can defeat every grandmaster. Brynjolfsson pointed out that Watson, the IBM AI project, having successfully amassed enough everyday knowledge to defeat the grand champions on Jeopardy!, was “now applying for jobs at call centers, and getting them. In finance, and in law, and getting them.”

Economists often note that even experts are very bad at predicting the world to come and constantly underestimate it. Optimists like Brynjolfsson say that though productivity gains from computer technologies have declined since 2004, that’s no reason to expect the decline to continue. They see prospects. A recent ­McKinsey report detailing economic sectors that might grow found, for instance, great possibilities in intelligent machines: trillions of dollars in the so-called Internet of Things, for instance, and 3-D printing.

I called Brynjolfsson at his office at MIT to try to get a better sense of what a ­roboticized society might look like. It turns out the optimist’s case is darker than I expected. “The problem is jobs,” he said. Sixty-five percent of American workers, Brynjolfsson explained, occupy jobs whose basic tasks can be classified as information processing. If you are trying to find a competitive advantage for people over machines, this does not bode well: “The human mind did not evolve to multiply triple-digit numbers,” he told me. The robot mind has. In other words, the long history of Marx-inflected pleas, from ­“Bartleby” through to Fight Club, that office work was dehumanizing may have been onto something. Those jobs were never really designed for the human mind. They were designed for robots. The existing robots just weren’t good enough to take them. At first.