Culture TED Conferences

Debate: Erik Brynjolfsson and Robert J. Gordon at TED2013

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TED Curator Chris Anderson opened this morning’s first session, Progress Enigma, with a provocative question: What is the future of work? He asked the audience: According to your worldview, is the growth of innovation accelerating? Not surprisingly, the overwhelming majority of the audience answered yes. But is the answer so simple? Economist Robert J. Gordon followed Chris’ question with an argument that economic growth is slowing down for the majority of the population, and may even start reversing. Erik Brynjolfsson then gave a talk arguing that income may be falling, but creative productivity and innovation are as strong as ever, it’s just that people are providing free services (like TED Talks!). Chris then invited both speakers on stage to debate growth and progress.

Gordon began the debate by asking Brynjolfsson about the value of some of the innovations he mentioned in his talk, like Deep Blue and Baxter the Robot, which are single-purpose machines. Would one individual computer, asked Gordon, ever be able to replace humans in totality? The purpose isn’t to just produce more stuff, answered Brynjolfsson, but for humans to compliment new technology. Indeed, this is still true innovation. But as Gordon pointed out, the real problem that this technology poses is putting people out of employment.

Chris then posed the question to Brynjolfsson: Are you under an illusion that the curve of growth is moving upward, while Gordon is seeing a more realistic S-curve? Brynjolfsson countered: Gordon is under an illusion that occurs often from sitting atop the S-curve, that you can’t see the rest of it. In other words, we can’t foresee the things we haven’t made yet. Brynjolfsson said, “Two hundred years ago, Gordon’s grandfather might have said we’ve reached the pinnacle of horseshoe making, we can’t make it any better,” and that would have been the end of that innovation. But of course innovation wasn’t over with that invention’s progress; we simply can’t foresee the things we haven’t made yet. Gordon asked again about the purpose of all this progress, asking: “What good is a world in which we can listening to a bunch of free music, but no one has any jobs?” The crowd went wild.

Indeed, the two agreed that the main issue we face is that growth isn’t happening for the bottom 99 percent. Brynjolfsson argued that we are innovating at an insane rate, while Gordon’s consistent response was, What’s the point, if people don’t have jobs? Chris posed the question to the audience: Would you rather live for a year without the Internet, but without plumbing, or with plumbing and without Internet? Yet after an undoubtedly exciting debate, at the close the audience’s vote remained 6-1 in favor of accelerated growth.