The advances we’ve seen in the past few years—cars that drive themselves, useful humanoid robots, speech recognition and synthesis systems, 3D printers, Jeopardy!-champion computers—are not the crowning achievements of the computer era. They’re the warm-up acts. As we move deeper into the second machine age we’ll see more and more such wonders, and they’ll become more and more impressive.
How can we be so sure? Because the exponential, digital, and recombinant powers of the second machine age have made it possible for humanity to create two of the most important one-time events in our history: the emergence of real, useful artificial intelligence (AI) and the connection of most of the people on the planet via a common digital network.
Either of these advances alone would fundamentally change our growth prospects. When combined, they’re more important than anything since the Industrial Revolution, which forever transformed how physical work was done.
Thinking Machines, Available now
Digital machines have escaped their narrow confines and started to demonstrate broad abilities in pattern recognition, complex communication, and other domains that used to be exclusively human. We’ve recently seen great progress in natural language processing, machine learning (the ability of a computer to automatically refine its methods and improve its results as it gets more data), computer vision, simultaneous localization and mapping, and many other areas.
We’re going to see artificial intelligence do more and more, and as this happens costs will go down, outcomes will improve, and our lives will get better. Soon countless pieces of AI will be working on our behalf, often in the background. They’ll help us in areas ranging from trivial to substantive to life changing. Trivial uses of AI include recognizing our friends’ faces in photos and recommending products. More substantive ones include automatically driving cars on the road, guiding robots in warehouses, and better matching jobs and job seekers. But these remarkable advances pale against the life-changing potential of artificial intelligence.
To take just one recent example, innovators at the Israeli company OrCam have combined a small but powerful computer, digital sensors, and excellent algorithms to give key aspects of sight to the visually impaired (a population numbering more than twenty million in the United States alone). A user of the OrCam system, which was introduced in 2013, clips onto her glasses a combination of a tiny digital camera and speaker that works by conducting sound waves through the bones of the head. If she points her finger at a source of text such as a billboard, package of food, or newspaper article, the computer immediately analyzes the images the camera sends to it, then reads the text to her via the speaker.
Reading text ‘in the wild’—in a variety of fonts, sizes, surfaces, and lighting conditions—has historically been yet another area where humans outpaced even the most advanced hardware and software. OrCam and similar innovations show that this is no longer the case, and that here again technology is racing ahead. As it does, it will help millions of people lead fuller lives. The OrCam costs about $2,500—the price of a good hearing aid—and is certain to become cheaper over time.
Digital technologies are also restoring hearing to the deaf via cochlear implants and will probably bring sight back to the fully blind; the FDA recently approved a first-generation retinal implant. AI’s benefits extend even to quadriplegics, since wheelchairs can now be controlled by thoughts. Considered objectively, these advances are something close to miracles—and they’re still in their infancy.
Billions of Innovators, Coming Soon
In addition to powerful and useful AI, the other recent development that promises to further accelerate the second machine age is the digital interconnection of the planet’s people. There is no better resource for improving the world and bettering the state of humanity than the world’s humans—all 7.1 billion of us. Our good ideas and innovations will address the challenges that arise, improve the quality of our lives, allow us to live more lightly on the planet, and help us take better care of one another. It is a remarkable and unmistakable fact that, with the exception of climate change, virtually all environmental, social, and individual indicators of health have improved over time, even as human population has increased.
This improvement is not a lucky coincidence; it is cause and effect. Things have gotten better because there are more people, who in total have more good ideas that improve our overall lot. The economist Julian Simon was one of the first to make this optimistic argument, and he advanced it repeatedly and forcefully throughout his career. He wrote, “It is your mind that matters economically, as much or more than your mouth or hands. In the long run, the most important economic effect of population size and growth is the contribution of additional people to our stock of useful knowledge. And this contribution is large enough in the long run to overcome all the costs of population growth.”