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Machine. Platform. Crowd. The three most influential words in the new economy?

Over the last decade, MIT Sloan researchers Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee have become adept navigators of our digital future, and their most recent book, Machine Platform Crowd: Harnessing our Digital Future pretty much guarantees their place at the helm. The best selling authors of The Second Machine Age (2014) have taken the lead in making sense of the technological advances that are confounding the rest of the world.

In their new work, McAfee and Brynjolfsson, codirectors of the MIT Initiative on the Digital Economy, help the average citizen understand what the integration of machines, platforms, and crowds will mean to our collective tomorrow. Robots are front and center in that digital future-scape. The authors talk about restaurants in which customers order, pay for, and receive meals without interacting with human employees. Ordering, they point out, is something that a robot—or a computer interface—can accomplish very adeptly if the programming is smart enough.

Behind the scenes in the kitchen, robots are also useful, but their abilities are limited by their lack of discernment. McAfee and Brynjolfsson write, “The objects being processed—avocados, tomatoes, eggplants, and so on—are both irregularly shaped and not completely rigid. These traits present no real problems for humans … Most of the robots created so far, however, are much better at handling things that are completely rigid and do not vary from one to the next.”

Robots can cook

That lack of discernment doesn’t mean that robots can’t cook. The authors cite a hamburger maker developed by Momentum Machines that coverts raw meat, buns, condiments, sauces, and seasonings into finished, bagged burgers at rates as high as 400 an hour. What makes this a successful task for robots is the uniformity and simple measurability of the ingredients.

But robots certainly won’t be confined to jobs in the fast food industry. McAfee and Brynjolfsson say that any tasks that are dull, dirty, dangerous, and “dear” (i.e. expensive) will be the province of robots. Drones will soon be used by insurance companies to assess how badly a roof was damaged after a tornado or to help guard herds of endangered animals against poaching.

The authors talk about Rio Tinto, the first company to dispatch a fleet of remote-controlled trucks to move iron ore at a mine in Western Australia. “The driverless vehicles run 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, and are supervised from a control center a thousand miles away. The savings from breaks, absenteeism, and shift changes enables the robotic fleet to be 12 percent more efficient than the human-driven one.”

While some find the introduction of robots and drones into the workplace threatening, McAfee and Brynjolfsson point out multiple upsides. For example, they say, as machines are able to do more work in the physical world, humans will do less and less of it and instead use our brains for creative endeavors and for work that requires empathy, leadership, teamwork, and coaching.

Read the MIT News Q&A with McAfee and Brynjolfsson.

Watch an interview with McAfee and Brynjolfsson.

Read the book excerpt “When the Automatons Explode” by McAfee and Brynjolfsson.

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