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Saturday, June 21, 2014

Is Average Over? 

I've recently finished reading Average Is Over by Tyler Cowen, and really enjoyed it.

I don't necessarily agree with the main conclusion, but there were a lot of interesting ideas presented along the way.

I suspect that Cowen is trying to take advantage of the fashionable concern about income (and wealth) inequality (I'm not very concerned about that, in itself). His thesis, which is pretty common, is that advancing capabilities of computer intelligence will further segment the economy between the owners and knowledge workers who can direct the machines, and the rest of the population who will be stuck providing low-paying services that aren't easily automated.

I think he's definitely right that the labor market is going to change (that's always a safe prediction), but I'm not as confident about what the distribution will look like. Since the machines will help generate tremendous wealth in goods and information, there might be a lot of demand for creative, high-paying (or at least ranging across a wide spectrum), services that people will either do better than machines, or just be preferred by customers (and Cowen does mention the importance of human coaches, for example). I don't know what these jobs will be, but I suspect people will figure out what others want and how they can make a living providing it.

I also have some quibbles with Cowen's predictions about science, suggesting that there will be fewer big advances and few paradigm-shifting individual discoveries, and more specialized progress among research teams with machines; such that no individuals can grasp more than a small part of their fields. I think science is more about generating better and better explanations, and I don't see a limit to what humans can grasp (at the level of good explanations rather than trivial factual details); but maybe seeing our limitations is one of my limitations...

But, whether or not "Average is over," it's still fascinating going along for the ride through speculation across multiple topics with a brilliant mind.

One insight that I really appreciated was the idea that the people who will really prosper will be those who best complement intelligent machines. Cowen's interesting analogy was with freestyle chess, where human and computer teams compete and play at a much higher level than just humans or just machines could do on their own.

If this kind of smart speculation appeals to you, you should definitely read this book.