The 3rd Machine Age

by | Jul 13, 2015

david dornfeldWhere are all the people?

I recently bought and read a book “The Second Machine Age” by two visionary authors at MIT predicting (touting?) the rise of the next industrial revolution and the age of the robots … like the phrase in Lord of the Rings movie predicting the demise of men (“The Age of Men is over. The Time of the Orc has come.” — Gothmog to his army in The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King). We see here the rise of the machine (again).

Other recent publications, in a series of books and articles, tout the role of automation and robots in enhancing productivity. In “Plant of the future” (a publication of IndustryWeek) the benefits of computers, automation, robotics and “digitalization” are reviewed with the summary comments: “Automation allows people to complete tasks faster with fewer errors at cheaper costs. This increases productivity, which means people don’t have to spend as much time or money to accomplish tasks, which generates new wealth for society. True, if your job was eliminated through automation, you are personally less wealthy. That’s the painful side of economic disruptions.”

The benefits are clear for the economy on the front side … the challenges created by the “if your job was eliminated” part are less clear.

First of all, I am not a luddite. I love technology and have spent a lot of time researching and developing aids to automation that make factories and machines hum and perform efficient, quality, cost effective operations. And, I also am aware that many times in the past (just check Amazon for this Second Machine Age book and they’ll  give a list of a bunch of earlier books predicting the machine age and its benefits others have bought) there have been similar predictions but calibrated to the buzz word of technology of the time. Recall a post in this blog back in October 2014 on the digital revolution where referenced was made to a Fortune article from November 1994. That article predicted that the digital factory could have the effect to “stabilize or even increase the number of production-worker jobs in the US.” Well … not so much in the US. Maybe elsewhere.

But, there is a growing concern about this enthusiasm for the age of the machine – at least among some of us – or at least by me. Part of the concern stems from the simple question “Who takes things apart?” The last posting on the circular economy summarized the results of a study on material flow in the economy as follows: “… the degree of circularity of the global economy measured as the share of actually recycled materials in total processed materials is quite low – only 6 percent. Most of the  processed materials (66 percent) left the global economy as wastes and emissions.” This is a problem and it is not necessarily helped by automation or increases in efficiencies on the “input side” of the economy. Let’s look more at this.

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