I finished Tyler Cowen’s newest book, Average Is Over last night. Dr. Cowen is an economist at George Mason University and has written several books including The Great Stagnation, has a column in the New York Times and has published articles in Newsweek, Forbes, The New Republic, and the Wall Street Journal.
The general premise in Average Is Over is that the middle class is disappearing largely because of advancements in productivity, and those advancements in productivity are due to intelligent machines. The Great Recession has been blamed for many middle-income job losses, but Cowen asserts that the recession only revealed the underlying problem. Technology and intelligent machines started in the late 90s and early 2000s to make many middle-income workers obsolete, and the recession simply accelerated those job losses.
The book claims that in the coming years, we will see a hyper-polarization of America – an increase in the number of those at the top, while at the same time an increase in the number of those at the bottom of the economic spectrum. The haves and have-nots will be divided primarily by whether or not they have the skill to work with intelligent machines and create value out of computing power.
It becomes apparent very early in the book that Dr. Cowen really enjoys chess. But chess turns out to be a great example of how humans and intelligent machines can work synergistically to become better than either human or machine on their own. Most people have heard of IBM’s Deep Blue and its match against grandmaster Gary Kasparov. Fewer people know about the underground human-machine hybrid freestyle chess tournaments where teams of humans armed with chess engines like Hydra and Rybka compete and play some of the greatest chess matches ever imagined.
Average Is Over extends human-machine synergy far beyond chess and examines the implications for education, health care, the service industry, marketing, science (a personal favorite), and what it all means for society moving forward.
Reading the book as a 25 year-old who is still trying to figure out his path in life, I have a couple of questions for Dr. Cowen.
- First, I would ask his advice for young people to help ensure that they are part of the haves in an economically hyper-polarized America. What should they study in college or what type of masters degree should they pursue? With free online education offerings from Coursera, edX, and MIT OpenCourseWare, what direction should they go?
- And second, now that I have access to IBM’s Watson in the cloud, how can I develop the skills needed to effectively use all of the computing power available?
I really enjoyed the book, and look forward to keeping up with the many topics it addresses on Dr. Cowen’s blog, MarginalRevolution. If you’ve read the book, are interested, or have thoughts on the couple of questions above, please let me know in the comments below.