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One of the joys of being semi-retired is the time to read.

A recent book that impressed me is “The Second Machine Age” by Brynjolfsson and McAfee. The book is well written and fun to read, but a little frightening. The big deal about the second machine age is, as you might have guessed, digital technology.

What’s really impressive to me is how fortunate we are to be living at this time. A mere couple of hundred years ago, we’d almost all be farmers coming from a long line of farmers (with a very few of us being nobility, living off of the hard work of the farmers). And it wouldn’t be the high tech farmers of today with thousands of acres and GPS-guided planting, fertilizing, pest control, and sophisticated financials hedging the harvest.

It would be animal powered. And we’d be one of the animals! There are a number of impressive graphs in the book showing little to no technical progress until the Industrial Revolution of about 1750, the beginning of the first machine age powered by steam. The 30 years between 1870 and 1900 saw three critical innovations: electricity, the internal combustion engine, and indoor plumbing. If you had to pick two of the three, which one would you forego? Then the progress graph turns straight up, a real “hockey stick” picture.

There are two critical features of the second machine age; the creation of general purpose technologies, and the explosion of information and communication technologies. That second one is us! The prime example of general purpose technologies is the computer, particularly as implemented in systems on chips. The applications are without number. In our industry, think of set top boxes, smart TVs, cable modems and all of the hardware in the headend and nodes.

Every time computer technology improves, nearly all of its applications benefit. It has a huge multiplicative impact.

The same is true of communication technologies. The interconnection of computing devices and the addition of sensors and actuators, such as video cameras and video displays, brings exponential growth to the second machine age. The power of this is understood when it is appreciated that innovation is basically the recombination of well-known technologies in ways not previously put together. All the pieces are understood, the new combination of these pieces is what creates the new innovation by doing something never done before. And the combinations are essentially endless.

Combining these elements leads to computerization, automation, and robots. These technologies dramatically improve productivity and reduce the amount or routine and boring work. But they also eliminate jobs. For a long time, the experts believed that while some jobs are eliminated by technology, new and better jobs are created. This is cold comfort for those whose jobs are gone, and the efficacy of this process is now being called into question.

The replacement jobs don’t seem to be coming as they used to. The July issue of Fortune magazine had an article whose title summarizes the question: “In the Future, Will There be Any Work Left for People to Do?”

No matter what the career focus is, computerization and automation is having an impact. The number of workers needed for physical work is reduced by productivity enhancing machines. Much of engineering, design and other professional work is enhanced by computerization, increasing the output per person and reducing the number of persons needed. Computers are getting close to being able to think. The lady who lives in your cell phone is scary! An interesting and fun example of the application of computers to almost think is the technical paper generation software SCIgen. This software creates text and graphics that looks like a technical paper on computer technology. You might understand each word, but the combination of them usually makes little or no sense. You might play with it a little and maybe see if you can fool a non-technical friend. There has been at least one case of a paper accepted for presentation at a conference based on this software resulting in major embarrassment. Give it a try.

 The books lists its three broad conclusions: 1) our time is “a time of astonishing progress”, 2) digital technology has been “profoundly beneficial”, and 3) “digitization is going to bring … some thorny challenges.”

It’s good news and bad news.

There has never been a better time to be a skilled worker and almost never a worse time to be without needed skills. A lot of people are being left behind while those with the right skills are racing forward.

We can see it in our cable industry.

Technologists are constantly working on their skill sets, adding new ones, polishing existing ones. As you do this, try to keep an eye on what skills are complementary with the second machine age and focus there while not spending too much time on those that will be absorbed by machines.     

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