Business TEDTalks

The future of work and innovation: Robert Gordon and Erik Brynjolfsson debate at TED2013

Posted by: Kate Torgovnick May

Robert Gordon: The death of innovation, the end of growthRobert Gordon: The death of innovation, the end of growthEconomists Robert Gordon and Erik Brynjolffson see very different things when they look at the stagnation of the U.S. economy in recent years. It’s almost as if they’re looking at an optical illusion image – one seeing a candlestick while the other sees two faces just inches apart. In today’s talks, they both outlined their thoughts.

Gordon sees the candlestick — he believes that the growth could be tapering off for good and that our best innovations may be behind us. As he points out, between 1900 and 1960, we went from traveling by a horse and buggy to taking Boeing 707s. But in the sixty years since, we haven’t learned to go any faster at a mass commercial level. What’s wrong? In his talk, he outlines four headwinds which are keeping us from continued growth at the pace of the past two centuries: demographics, education, debt and inequality.

Erik Brynjolfsson: The key to growth? Race with the machinesErik Brynjolfsson: The key to growth? Race with the machinesMeanwhile, Brynjolfsson sees the faces. He says that the stagnation may simply be growing pains as we move from an economy based on production to one based on ideas. He also looks to the past for an example, taking us back 120 years to the Second Industrial Revolution. While all the tools were in place for mass production, it took three decades for productivity to skyrocket. The first generation of managers — who had old ideas about systems and workflows – had to age out of the system for growth to start. This is where Brynjolfsson thinks we are now. He sees another wave of innovation in our future — if humans can learn to work alongside computers and robots in more symbiotic ways.

Click the links above to watch these two fascinating talks. And then watch this 12-minute debate between the Gordon and Brynjolfsson on what it means to work today … and what it will mean in the future.

Do you think we are witnessing the end of innovation? Is growth over? Did either speaker here change your opinion? Explain in the comments.

Comments (35)

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  • Brian Caulfield commented on Aug 1 2013

    Robert Gordon makes some good points. In areas like transportation speed, hours of work and population density, we have already gotten most of the gains. But there could be room for fundamental change in entirely different and new areas. And our collective capacity to invent is so high today that if something can be done, we are likely to do it.

    The industrial revolutions involved manufacturing and energy exploitation made possible by science and engineering. Today our biological and information science is close to enabling a transformation of experience that could make many of our material needs and old assumptions obsolete. These possibilities are speculative but realistic.

    Traditional aging is under attack. The goal is to halt or reverse it. What if we stay at optimal adult productivity forever?

    Going further, we may replace all our real sensory experience with a synthetic world. Just as today we can consume unlimited recorded media, soon we may be able to have an unlimited experience of luxury at near zero cost. Housing and transportation would become irrelevant.

    Even further, we may move from our biological bodies to existing as simulations. In this case our ability to do work and learn could improve at the same pace as our computers, and the carrying capacity of Earth could be an effectively unlimited number of simulated people.

  • Werner Stapela commented on Jul 31 2013

    It’s a pity that the debate was limited to USA, since the issues are global, albeit that the math differs a little in different geographies.
    The core point, on which there is anyhow agreement, is that we are able to produce ever more (goods + services) with ever less labour (hours). RG sees this as bad, EB as good.
    What sursprises me is that no one draws the logical conclusion: it can be good (=EB) and hugely beneficial PROVIDED we, as a society, change our income distribution methodology.
    If we insist on a compensation model (and insurance, and self-worth, etc.) based on “jobs” as they are now defined, then the development is bad, since there will simply be less “jobs” (hours of labour), as we currently define them. If, however, we figure out how to distribute income, even at it’s current level of around $ 50,000 (USA per capital GDP), in a different manner, that will allow us to benefit from the development. This does indeed require a different tax base also, but there are models that are perfectly feasable.
    Also, it requires us to think way outside the current box. But if we can do that technologically, why not sociologically?

  • Eric Snell commented on Jul 3 2013

    The comment made by Gordon to open US borders to anyone creates several obvious problems 1) terrorism (national security) 2) overpopulation would create more unemployment and devastate the ecomomy
    Also, legalizing drugs would not put an end to Mexican Cartels, gangs, ect. Actually, since crime organizations like these are the main distributors of illegal drugs, legalization would put these individuals in a major power position of influence. Product being legalized means easier access, more addiction which in turn = more violence crime. I could go on but Gordon’s solutions are not realistic. Lastly, if you are Brynjolfsson how do you not respond to such ridiculous statements in a debate?

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