Kathy Gibson reports from Huawei Connect in Shanghai – The future of technology and innovation is bright – but we should learn from the past.
Professor Andrew McAfee, principle research scientist at MIT Sloan School of Management, explains that for thousands of years we accomplished work by relying on muscle power.
“This placed a hard limit on how quickly our economies could grow, and how wealthy we could become. For most of history people were very poor.”
The Industrial Revolution fundamentally changed all this, when we overcame the limitation of our muscles. “We harnessed first steam, then electricity and then gasoline to forever change history.
“Instead of remaining poor and starving, the average person become more wealthy and lived longer.”
This first revolution changed the course of human history for the better, McAfee says.
“We should keep in mind that this transition was difficult and there were some challenges.”
One of these was the harm done to the environment. Other mistakes included the use of children in factories.
“The story of the first revolution was of overcoming these challenges and putting humanity in a new place: in a place of abundance.”
The second machine age is about overcoming the limitations of our minds. “And we are doing this in at least the same degree that  we did in the first machine age.”
The first probably most obvious contributor to this is software. It is able to do more and more over time. In fact it is rapidly overcoming one of its most fundamental limitations, McAfee says. “We have always had to tell software exactly what we wanted it to do, in painstaking detail.
“But in the last few years, we don’t have to do that anymore; we are building systems that can figure things out for themselves, learn by themselves and achieve impressive performance.”
This breakthrough can be epitomised by the recent victory of a computer over the world’s leading Go player.
“A lot of people are frightened by the prospect of artificial intelligence. Not me – two kinds of intelligence brought together on our toughest problems will bring solutions.”
Robotics is the physical manifestation of this logical development. These machines go beyond robots, however, and include things like drones and others.
Importantly these machines can learn together as a group and make themselves better.
Humans are still central to this age, and devices and changing the way people live and work.
“Think how quickly how we collect knowledge and communicate has changed,” McAfee says.
Mobile devices give people the opportunity to inter-connect – and it’s going to get better. “The one thing we know about technology is that it gets better very quickly. So the amount of computer power you can buy today is about half of what you will be able to buy in a year or two.”
In the second machine age, there will aso be problems.. “As the age races ahead, some people will get left behind.”
We need to upgrade skills levels, and there will be a need to overcome the expected heating of the planet that will be caused by the new machine age.
McAfee believes that in the future we will not only take more of the drudgery out of work, but will also tread more lightly on the earth.