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Race Against The Machine

Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee

No politicians yet taking seriously the idea that computers will significantly disrupt human labour markets.

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Computers are making rapid and unexpected inroads. A book published 2004 The New Division of Labor discussing the comparative abilities of computers and human workers, and used the example of truck driving as the sort of skill that could not be automated. Yet today, self-drive cars are on the roads in US and Germany. Automation is progressing so fast that it takes things from the realm of science fiction to the real world, not in generations, but in just a few years.

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Old story about chessboard and smart guy who asked to be paid with 1 grain of rice for the first square, 2 for the second, 4 for the third etc. After 32 squares, the guy had about 4 billion grains of rice - about one large field's worth - which was still a reasonable payment. The first half of the chessboard is deceptive, because exponential change seems not much different to standard linear change. But it's when you get into the second half of the board that things escalate rapidly. And that is where we are now with the Technological Revolution.

What happens is not just a one-time makeover. It's an on-going process of creative destruction. Innovators make deep changes at the level of the task, the process, even the organization itself.

Legal industry - Blackstone Discovery Ltd analyzed 1.5 million documents for $100,000, a task that would previously have required auditoriums full of lawyers to read documents for weeks on end. The company used same program to reanalyze work they'd done the old way in the '80s and 90s, and found the human analysts had only been 60% accurate. "All that money spent to be slightly better than a coin toss."

1965 NASA quote: "Man is the lowest-cost, all-purpose computer system which can be produced by unskilled labor."

Difference between median and mean. 50 workers are drinking in a bar. Bill Gates walks in as the poorest guy walks out. The mean wealth of the customers soars to $1 billion. But the wealth of the median customer doesn't change a bit.

There was a type of employee at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution whose livelihood largely vanished in the early twentieth century - the horse. Population in England peaked at 3.25 million in 1901. Though they'd been replaced for long distance transport by trains, and for driving machinery by the steam engine, they still ploughed fields, pulled carriages short distances and carried armies into battle. But the internal combustion engine rapidly displaced these workers. There was still work available for the horse, but the wage was so low that it did not pay for their feed.

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Superstars vs everyone else. Music, athletes, CEO's, surgeons etc. In many markets, people are prepared to pay a premium for the very best, and he capture most of the market. The next-best provider, who is almost as good, gets a lot smaller share.

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The best chess player on the planet today is not a computer. The best is a team of humans using computers. Since the 1997 victory of the $10 million Deep Blue over Gary Kasparov, no human vs computer matches, because they are boring (the computer always wins). What they have now are freestyle contests, allowing any combination of men and machines. The current champs are a pair of amateur American chess players using three computers at the same time.

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The same thing is happening throughout the business world - race is not against machines, but with them, against other teams.

Education still much same as it has been for centuries. In many classrooms, the main instructional technology is literally a piece of limestone rock scraped across a larger piece of slate.

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