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Positive Futures (continued)

A portfolio of astounding achievement.
This is a decidedly optimistic take on the future. It comes from a pair who rode in Google’s self-driven car, who watched as IBM’s Watson supercomputer wiped the floor with MIT Sloan and Harvard Business School students in a Jeopardy! match, and who meet regularly with leading scientists working in robotics and artificial intelligence. The enthusiasm coursed through McAfee’s TEDxBoston talk last summer. (“We ain’t seen nothing yet,” he told the audience, and it’s clear he can’t wait until we do.) Told that 3D printers can now create LP records—a relatively consumerist, non-essential achievement—McAfee simply remarks, “Wow.” These guys see it all, and yet news of an incremental advancement rouses them. They have no reason to be surprised, yet see every reason to be excited.

“The Google car by itself is probably a trillion-dollar innovation,” says Brynjolfsson. “The self-driving car is going to have that kind of impact on the economy. So far, it’s a tiny fraction of that. And you go through the other emerging technologies: what Watson’s ability to answer questions is going to do not just for call centers, but also for medical diagnosis and legal research. The numbers start adding up in a pretty staggering way. And these are just for the ones that we’ve actually seen and tried out. The impact will be that much larger when you consider the ones on the drawing board that are still to come.”

That sort of technological advancement comes in all sizes and is constantly underway at MIT and MIT Sloan. Brynjolfsson and McAfee see it in their own work. With an MIT Sloan doctoral candidate, Brynjolfsson crunched mountains of publically available search data to build a housing sales predictor that outshone the leading models in the industry. And that was in 2009. McAfee recently studied the effect of new monitoring technology in restaurants, allowing managers to judge employee performance and improve loss prevention. The revenue implications, he says, are significant.

Both the housing sales and restaurant-monitoring cases are just that: case studies. They are encouraging—each foretells a technology-driven shift in industry standards that would add value without necessarily cutting jobs or wages. However, they really start to become significant when viewed not only in the aggregate, but also as part of a new era in technological and economic development. That’s the era Brynjolfsson and McAfee want economists, business leaders, engineers, and scientists, working together, to lead the country toward.

“This is a great world that we’re heading into,” says McAfee, who is associate director and principal research scientist at the MIT Center for Digital Business. “This is not some apocalyptic or dire scenario. Erik and I firmly believe that we’re not heading into an economy where there’s not enough to go around. What this technology bundle is doing is bringing us into a more bountiful, more abundant world.”

“But getting from here to there is very disruptive,” Brynjolfsson adds. “Just doing business as usual and relying on the same kind of economic institutions will become increasingly dysfunctional. So we have to manage that transition. If we don’t manage it, there could be a lot of people who are left behind, at least temporarily. That’s bad for them, and, frankly, it’s bad for everybody.”

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