Erik Brynjolfsson, Director of the MIT Center for Digital Business at MIT Sloan, and Andrew McAfee, Principal Research Scientist at the MIT Center for Digital Business
From the Financial Times
It is easy to be pessimistic about jobs and pay these days. More and more work is being automated away by ever more powerful and capable technologies.
Not only can computers transcribe and translate normal human speech, they can also understand it well enough to carry out simple instructions. Machines now make sense of huge pools of unstructured information, and in many cases detect patterns and draw inferences better than highly trained and experienced humans. Recent advances include autonomous cars and aircraft, and robots that can work alongside humans in factories, warehouses and the open air.
I am 46 years old. The first 23 years of my life I spent in the Soviet Union; the remainder I spent in the United States. I was born and grew up in Ukraine — in Eastern Ukraine, to be exact. In the underbelly of the Ukrainian Rust Belt, called the Donbass, where people work in ginormous smoke belching factories, eat salted pork fat for breakfast and speak Russian.
That was supposed to be my fate too, pork fat and all, but the Soviet Empire collapsed, I got to study economics at an Ivy League doctorate program and am now a professor at the MIT Sloan School of Management. Spending half of my life in Ukraine sort of qualifies me to offer an opinion about recent events there. Being at MIT, my opinion comes with more than a hint of technology included.
If you are reading this, you have probably already seen plenty of pictures of burning tires, exploding Molotov cocktails, bodies with blankets over them, armed men with covered faces, and, most recently, youthful opposition leaders shaking hands with the heads of great nations. What I see is an installation of a new “operating system,” or an OS as they are called in the tech world. An OS is an essential set of common rules that enable different parts of a computer, or in this case society, to interact with each other. Without these rules, a nation state cannot function — just like your computer cannot function without an OS.
The solitary genius, closeted in a lab or garage, creating the next big thing is largely a myth. Important innovation almost always builds upon what came before it. The automobile would not exist if the horse-drawn carriage had not been invented first. We would not be using laser pointers now if early humans had not fashioned torches in experiments with fire.
The most important example of innovation through knowledge sharing today is the open source software movement. Developers are posting code in online communities across the globe, learning from one another and building on each other’s advances. Imitation is not just the sincerest form of flattery. It’s also the best form of innovation.
Before companies can profit from big data, they often must deal with bad data. There may indeed be gold in the mountains of information that firms collect today, but there also are stores of contaminated or “noisy” data. In large organizations, especially financial institutions, data often suffer from mislabeling, omissions, and other inaccuracies. In firms that have undergone mergers or acquisitions, the problem is usually worse.
Contaminated data is a fact of life in statistics and econometrics. It is tempting to ignore or throw out bad data, or to assume that it can be “fixed” (or even identified) somehow. In general, this is not the case.
Talk of the cloud has stirred up a lot of excitement. A 2011 mandate from the government CIO to move toward a cloud-first strategy has managers hoping that public cloud solutions will provide a quick fix to sticky technology challenges and messy business processes.
To some extent the hype is real. The cloud is transforming how organizations use and manage technology. As cloud adoption becomes more prevalent, government organizations that resist its charms risk missing opportunities to enhance the services they deliver.