Prepare for the second coming of technology

SINGAPORE - Self-driving cars, Jeopardy champion supercomputers, and flexible human-like robots used to be the stuff of science fiction movies. Now, they have walked off the screen into people's homes, offices and even cars.

While the industrial revolution brought considerable human advancement, it will likely be dwarfed by technology's second coming, say Massachusetts Institute of Technology professors Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee.

"We are at an inflection point in history," they say in their book titled The Second Machine Age.

The exponential growth of computing power, the digitisation of information and the ability to build innovation upon innovation are explained in their recently published book. This, of course, is sparking both excitement and concern: How should one prepare for this highly advanced digital age?

Speaking with The Sunday Times, Prof McAfee highlights some specific areas where Singapore may be headed in the right direction. They include its focus on education and investing in infrastructure. He also points out areas where other countries, such as the United States, have the upper hand.

The main problem that countries face in the dawn of the second machine age is what Prof McAfee calls the "spread". This is "the notion that a lot of people are getting left behind as technology races ahead", he says.

"When we look at income or wealth or opportunity or social mobility or a lot of things that we care about, some of the numbers are heading in the wrong direction."

While this is happening the world over, he concedes that some countries are mitigating the problem better than others.

Singapore for example, he says, is "doing an admirable job of raising living standards for all the people there".

In the United States, however, Prof McAfee feels "the worker... in the middle has been losing ground since the turn of the century".

In 1999, the real income of the median American household was US$54,932. By 2011, it had fallen to US$50,054 (S$63,400).

While technology may not be the only factor causing the increase in spread, it is a major contributor.

"Today's information technologies favour more-skilled over less-skilled workers, increase the returns to capital owners over labour and increase the advantages that superstars have over everybody else," the authors explain.

But one way to maintain an edge over the machines is having the "right education", says Prof McAfee.

"Computers are better at maths than we are, they are at least as good as we are at reading and pretty soon, they are going to be competent at writing," he says. "So the classic skills and classic routine information and basic numeracy we get taught in school are not sufficient for the world of tomorrow."

He adds that this does not mean the vast majority of people have to rush out and get a technological education: "Steve Jobs himself was not a professional technologist, he was not educated that way."

Instead, what is needed is what Prof McAfee calls "ideation" - coming up with new ideas or concepts.

The US, he says, "has a more receptive culture and tolerance in the educational system for different kinds of thinking", while a lot of other countries have systems which have more "uniformity".

Singapore, he says, produces students who perform very well in international tests such as the Pisa rankings. In 2012, Singapore students were ranked second in maths, while US students ranked 31st.

But Prof McAfee is "not sure the system is as good at encouraging the kind of creativity and innovation and ideation" which he describes as "terribly important".

Singapore does, however, place an emphasis on good teachers - an area where the US falls short.

"I don't think we place enough value on being a teacher in a primary school... In the Northern European countries, I believe Singapore as well, teaching is a very valued, very respected profession even if it's not the best paid in the country."

Placing emphasis on such jobs is also important because these are the jobs that robots are still lousy at.

"Pure information work" that can be done entirely from a desk may be the ones people are looking for now, but they "are not going to be there, or at least be as lucrative, in a pretty short space of time", Prof McAfee warns.

But jobs that require ideation, "large-frame pattern recognition" (recognising patterns outside what a computer may be programmed for) and complex communication skills such as being a teacher, home health aide or a highly skilled repairman are going to be "human jobs for a long time to come", he says.

"One of the things I'd like to see is for those jobs to be more highly valued," he adds.

While the "spread" is something to take note of, the second machine age will also bring "more choice and even freedom", according to the authors.

Bemoaning the state of US infrastructure, Prof McAfee says he visited Singapore recently and was impressed by how everything works, how things are on time and how everything is modern. "On average the civil engineers in our country give us an average grade of a D+, and it doesn't make any sense to me. Singapore's average grade by the same standard, if it's not an A, it would be very close, I think."

In dealing with the second machine age, countries should "educate their people well and create a fertile environment for innovation and entrepreneurship", says Prof McAfee.

But what Singapore may lack is the start-up culture that will spur innovation and generate growth and wealth.

He says some factors in determining how active the start-up community will be in the country include a great research university, lots of risk-tolerant financing, cultural acceptance of failure and respect for the rule of law.

"The US luckily has all four of those. My question for Singapore would be, Do you feel you have all four of those in place?"

simlinoi@sph.com.sg

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