Progress Paradox debate – Gordon, Brynjolfsson

Here is the actual debate between Gordon and Brynjolfsson from TED 2013. Towards the end it goes in some surprising directions. Gordons first question relates to artificial intelligence and single purpose machines. The rebuttal is that machines solve problems in a different way. The goal is not to mimic human intelligence to offer tools

Brynjolfssons first question related to the issue of fewer working hours. Gordons reply is that early retirement is more of a problem than a benefit because financing retirement is difficult.

Chris Anderson then summarises the two views as follows:

1. “The type of innovation of the 20th century is just far more significant than anything we have seen in the last 10 years and are likely to see going forward.”


2. (Brynjolfsson) has a view of accelerating progress”

In graphical terms Gordon sees a bell curve where progress has declined to a very small level whereas Brynjolfsson sees an “S” curve which dips while we figure out the implications and usefulness of these new innovations.

When I watched the original debate (broadcast) live I really liked Gordon’s response to this.

“Erik really nailed it when he says we’ve got this disconnect between productivity and employment.. take the robots – the robots are gonna make money for the people who invent them; they are going to make money for the people who own them and they are going to displace workers.

The refrigerator guy said – that’s the only thing I know how to do with my life… and many of them are dropping out.

What good is it a world in which we have these really snazzy machines, and we listen to all this great music for free on the internet –

but we don’t have gainful employment and we have this next generation coming up with high school drop outs?”

Eriks reply is that the problem is not with the technology itself but that we need to reinvent our organisations so we can (use) this prosperity more broadly ( if that’s the society we want to live in.)

The trick is – how do we do this?

Gordon’s solutions – more immigration, more tourism and decriminalising drugs would have surprised a few at this point but that was quickly glossed over. ( Taxation changes are mentioned later by Gordon.)

However you should watch the debate now if you haven’t already skipped ahead.

When comparing Gordons indicators with the types of innovations that Brynjolfsson talks about it is difficult to really assess the relative value in a granular way.

For example indoor plumbing has a greater significance on quality of life than having access to say more than one digital music download service. But OTOH the positive influence of music on say mental health is something that is harder to measure but still significant.

I’m surprised that no one specifically mentioned Maslow’s hierarchy of needs during the debate. Many of the indicators Gordon uses refer back to the base of the pyramid at the level of physiological needs or the next level – safety. Many many jobs trace back to that at some level like building a house.

Almost all houses have a fridge but how many of them have a wine cooler or separate freezer? It just might be that many of us have the basics covered but we can’t afford or don’t want the other similar products that represent innovation in some way but are not essential.

I’m starting to see estimates of wearable tech go past $1.5b now and we can argue that it is not necessary but that is an innovation that may replace tablets just as tablets are replacing desktop and laptop systems now. The replacement markets are often worth less in $GDP terms because of Moores law and manufacturing scale improvements but they are still innovations.

Perhaps if we dialled back the urge to over consume all of the mod cons we would have a more simple but better quality of life anyway. This is a related topic but I have seen figures which measured consumer spending at around 70% of the GDP of many western countries.

I believe it is about half that in China but I don’t think that is a good thing myself and maybe the collaborative consumption trend is one answer there. ( More on the Rachel Botsman talks in future posts here.)  Nevertheless decreasing the level of consumer consumption in the economy will impact on jobs. Regardless of what we think of some jobs – there still needs to be some way ( jobs) for us to pay for our essentials as well as the other consumer items that make life more comfortable.

As Gordon says at the end of the debate:

“What is the value of all this knowledge – what is the value of Facebook? What is the value of friendship?”

One answer is that knowledge by itself is not as important as the changes we can and do make based on these new ideas.

Referring back to Maslow again it looks like many new innovations are more likely to impact on the self actualisation and esteem levels rather than the safety (although safety includes financial security so that is ironically put at risk from some technology innovations ) and physiological ones. This makes them harder to measure but no less significant.

I wonder is using the Calvert-Henderson* Quality of Life Indicators might be better than using GDP as a way to measure economic growth and how much of GDP is driven by factors such as energy use and demise of oil as a source.

(* Named in part after Hazel Henderson who should have been a TED speaker by now.)