Erik Brynjolfsson: Racing with the Machine Beats Racing Against the Machine

By TAP Staff Blogger

Posted on April 25, 2017


Image: Erik Brynjolfsson“The most important invention is machine learning.”
    - Erik Brynjolfsson, MIT Sloan School of Management


In his work examining the effects of information technologies on business strategy, productivity, and digital commerce, Professor Brynjolfsson points out that the new machine age currently underway – one of artificial intelligence and machine learning – is about idea production, rather than physical production. This new machine age is also unique because it is measurable (big data), combinatorial (meaning that innovations can be remixed) and exponential (it advances at an incredibly rapid pace).


Last week, NPR’s “TED Radio Hour” examined the Digital Industrial Revolution. Given that machine learning is beginning to surpass human intelligence, the program’s speakers explored the future of human-robot collaboration and the economic potential being created alongside it.


Professor Brynjolfsson explains that right now we're at the beginning of a new machine age where technology is developing at such a rapid pace that it's hard to keep up with. It starts with a small, exponential trend. And exponential trends double and double and double. They are barely detectable when they're small. But each time they double, eventually they start to become overwhelming. “This is the biggest challenge of our society over the next 10 years,” Professor Brynjolfsson says, “can we adapt fast enough?”


“As machines take on more jobs, many find themselves out of work or with raises indefinitely postponed,” says Professor Brynjolfsson. However, he also says this is not the end of growth. “It’s simply the growing pains of a radically reorganized economy. A riveting case for why big innovations are ahead of us … if we think of computers as our teammates.”


In “The Key to Growth? Race with the Machines,” Professor Brynjolfsson explains that he is optimistic about the future because he sees how machines can serve as powerful tools and partners. Below are a few excerpts:


Today we can take a routine job, codify it in a set of machine-readable instructions, and then replicate it a million times. I recently overheard a conversation that epitomizes these new economics: This guy says, ‘Nah, I don’t use H & R Block anymore, TurboTax does everything that my tax preparer did; but it’s faster, cheaper, and more accurate.’ How can a skilled worker compete with a $39 piece of software? She can’t. Today, millions of Americans do have faster, cheaper, more accurate tax preparation. And the founders of Intuit have done very well for themselves. But 17% of tax preparers no longer have jobs. That is a microcosm of what’s happening – not just in software and services – but in media and music, in finance and manufacturing, in retailing and trade. In short, in every industry.


People are racing against the machine. And many of them are losing that race. What can we do to create shared prosperity? The answer is not to slow down technology. Instead of racing against the machine, we need to race with the machine. That is our grand challenge.


The new machine age can be dated to a day 15 years ago when Garry Kasparov, the world chess champion, played Deep Blue, a super computer. The machine won that day. And today, a chess program running on a cell phone can beat a human grand master. It got so bad that when he was asked what strategy he would use against a computer, Jan Donner, the Dutch chess grand master, replied, ‘I’d bring a hammer.’


But today, a computer is no longer the world chess champion, neither is a human. Kasparov organized a free-style tournament where teams of humans and computers could work together. And the winning team had no grand master, and they had no super computer. What they had was better team work. And they showed that a team of humans and computers working together could beat any computer or any human working alone.


Racing with the machine beats racing against the machine.


Listen to Professor Brynjolfsson’s TED Talk: “The Key to Growth? Race with the Machines.”

Listen to the full “TED Radio Hour” from NPR: “Digital Industrial Revolution.”



Erik Brynjolfsson is a professor and director of the MIT Initiative on the Digital Economy, Professor at MIT Sloan School, and Research Associate at NBER. His work explores the effects of technology on business strategy, productivity, and digital commerce. He is the co-author of The Second Machine Age: Work, Progress, and Prosperity in a Time of Brilliant Technologies and Race Against the Machine.