Philip E. Auerswald

 

On his book The Code Economy: A Forty-Thousand Year History

Cover Interview of October 02, 2017

The wide angle

We have all heard that we’re about to become obsolete, irrelevant. Or if not us, then, certainly, our children. No number of coding camps will help them. And definitely not travel soccer.

Algorithmically-powered robots have already beaten the best among us at chess, Jeopardy!, and, most recently, the famously difficult game of Go. Robots—or, at least, Big Data and algorithms—are already picking restaurants and romantic prospects for us. We now have robot bartenders on cruise ships, in Thailand they have robot food tasters, and, in Saudi Arabia … yes, robot camel jockeys.

In short, algorithms are getting so good, and are doing every sort of work performed by humans so well, that pretty soon there won’t be anything left for us to do.

That’s one story.

There’s another story you likely have also heard. That story is that we are on the cusp of a great Singularity. Humans transcend biology.

The advance of the algorithmic frontier will pull along the human species until we’re all man-machine cyborgs. Everyone one of us becoming Iron Man or Iron Woman.

So what will it be for our children? A Utopian Singularity? Or a Dystopian World without Work?

The story I tell in The Code Economy—the story that I believe reflects the true trend of history, going back not just decades but centuries and millennia—is neither of these.

The story that I tell is that—yes—robots, computers, and data-driven machines of all types are getting exponentially more powerful. And—no—we won’t be working the same way in twenty, ten, or even five years as we are today. But where the comparative advantage of machine over man will continue to grow in many areas of work, the human advantage will persist and endure indefinitely in others.

By economic default as well as by human choice, the future economy is overwhelmingly likely to be dominated not by work that consists of performing routinized tasks but by the capacity to continuously improvise new forms of value—creating for others at the same time as we grow our own capacities, and finding new recipes along the way.

The primary question facing human societies in the face of digital disruption is not whether opportunities for meaningful work will exist in the future. It is not even how such opportunities for meaningful work will be compensated. The question is more fundamental: It is about the nature of human productive activity and how we value what we create and share.

In my story, the answer to the question, “Is there anything that humans can do better than digital computers?” turns out to be fairly simple.

Humans are better at being human.