The FINANCIAL -- Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) scientist Andrew McAfee sat down for a chat before an IMF event with First Deputy Managing Director David Lipton. He discussed the economic future of a world awash in tech, including changing the way we educate people.
IMF News : You’re interested in new and future innovations, but do you have a favorite innovation from the 20th century or earlier?
Andrew McAfee: If I could pick one invention, it would be electricity. There are other good candidates. There’s the internal combustion engine. Robert Gordon points out how important indoor plumbing was. I get all that.
But electricity radically changed industry. If you read the biography of Lyndon Johnson that Robert Caro wrote, one of the things you realize is how unbelievably hard life was in places like rural Texas before electrification. Women had to pump and carry buckets of water hundreds of yards back and forth all day for household chores. With a well powered by electricity, that doesn’t happen anymore.
IMF News : Much of the technology you talk about is dependent on electrical power. Do you think that’s an impediment to the growth and innovation you predict given the ever-greater scrutiny we place on the origins and impacts of our fuel sources?
McAfee: Bill Gates has a nice way to say it. He says, “We desperately need an energy revolution in the 21st century; we might just get one.” Between alternative sources of energy, and nuclear power—if we confront the evidence about it properly and embrace it a great deal more—we can meet our energy needs.
IMF News : Do you think that we are on the cusp of another invention like electricity that fundamentally changes the way that we power or interact with devices?
McAfee: I think the development of powerful and useful artificial intelligence is at the level of electricity and the internal combustion engine.
For the first time, we have a global colleague, or a second opinion—another flavor of intelligence that can examine evidence, draw inferences from it, and reach conclusions about it. We’ve never, ever had that before. We don’t have to tell it what’s important or what to look for. We show it enough examples and it says, hey, this is interesting. That’s going to be a great colleague to have.
IMF News : You write that we’re witnessing an “inflection point,” an era of digital abundance rather than physical scarcity. This might not be true of jobs replaced by new technologies. Can you talk more about that?
McAfee: The only honest answer is that nobody knows for sure right now. What I think we do know is that the kinds of routine physical and cognitive work that built the middle class in today’s rich countries in the post-war decades, are jobs that are not coming back. They’re gone. They’ve either migrated to low wage countries or, more fundamentally, they’re just getting automated away.
Can the engine of market-based capitalism and enterprise continue to do what it’s done for 200 years, continue to find new uses for human abilities and labor, even as technology advances? If you take the pattern of history you’re very, very confident, because we have 200 years of needing a lot of labor.
I think this time might be different. However, locomotion is really, really, hard for even the best robots to do today. That’s not going to change in the next three to five years. Dexterity, locomotion, perception. We’re good at all of these things put together, and we can switch very easily among those different skills. Technology can’t do that yet.
We are also, almost by definition, the world champions at interpersonal skills and social skills, and tapping into social drives. Technology is doing some really interesting things, but I don’t think the robot girls’ middle school soccer coach is going to appear any time soon. People tend to under-emphasize the kinds of skills that are associated with middle class jobs and lower middle class jobs. Those are not all going away. There are also a set of skills associated with very high income jobs, like entrepreneurship, creativity, and deep quantitative expertise, that are going to continue to be valuable.
IMF News : Should we change the way we educate people for the workforce?
McAfee: The main thing we need to do is stop educating people to be the kinds of workers we needed 50 years ago. By that I mean people who could absorb facts and regurgitate them, who had basic skills, all of which the computers are better at now, with few exceptions.
More fundamentally, a point of the educational system was to teach people to sit there in an orderly grid and listen to the voice of authority. We needed that for assembly line workers and payroll clerks. We don’t need that anymore. We need intellectual curiosity, problem identification and problem solving, group work, creativity, self-motivation and self-direction—very, very, different kinds of skills—and they need to start being developed very early in the educational process. Yes, we can absolutely teach these things.
IMF News : Where will we see the greatest impacts of new technology—in advanced economies or emerging markets?
McAfee: It feels, to me, that in advanced economies we’re going to be deploying science-fiction kinds of self-driving trucks and artificial intelligence for customer service and medical diagnoses. The other massively important new technology is that we are, for the very first time ever, interconnecting the majority of humanity with each other and with the world’s knowledge resources, and giving everyone the ability to contribute to those knowledge resources.
We’ve never been here before. It’s really easy to lose sight of the fact that you and I, just by virtue of the luck of our birth, grew up around schools and libraries and telecommunications networks. We are extraordinarily fortunate.
That’s not the case for kids born today. A kid doesn’t need to win the luck lottery in order to have access to those things. So when I think about the changes in the developing world, I think about the benefits that are going to come from this flourishing of access to knowledge and interconnection.