Below you’ll find the third installment of the After On interview with legendary tech publisher and prognosticator Tim O’Reilly. Please check out parts one and two if you missed them. Otherwise, press play on the embedded player, or pull up the transcript—both of which are below.
In today’s installment, Tim rejects the fashionable forecast that automation will eradicate all human jobs next week. Being closer than most of us to Jeff Bezos, he knows a thing or three about operations at Amazon, which presents a fascinating case in point.
The company began a hugely successful two-year robot buying spree in 2014. The robots automated countless repetitive and dangerous human tasks. And during that time, the company hired more than 100,000 new people in its warehouses. It turns out, these robots amplify the productivity of the folks who work with them. And when bosses get more bang for their buck from a category of worker, they tend to hire more of them.
Then Tim goes a bit dark. With reference to Facebook and Google, he compares the world economy to an optimizing algorithm that has gone off the rails. Facebook sucks maximum time out of you. Google maximizes your ad clicks (while not being evil, of course). Tim believes the free market is now an algorithm that ignores the interests of all stakeholders save for an elite sliver of giant equity owners.
Upbeat again, we discuss Tim’s concept of “combinatorial innovation.” I’ve heard versions on this theme before but none as crisp or illuminating as Tim’s. It’s a powerful lens for viewing many of our industry’s dynamics and one I’ve used often since recording this interview back in October.
This puts us back on Tim’s normal turf, because despite his caution about our economy’s drivers, most would call him an optimist (personally, I view him as a hardcore realist, since his decades of upbeat forecasts have largely borne out). He rebuts several adept pessimists like Jaron Lanier in ways that are respectful, persuasive, and inspiring.
Tim closes with a nuanced take on our future. Though much of it is uplifting, he stresses his concerns about inequality and deep-seated economic distortions. We’re left with a sense that things could go extremely well for humanity. But with ample opportunities to blow it, we must proceed with extravagant care.
If you enjoy my interview with Tim, a full archive of my episodes can be found on my site or by searching in your favorite podcast app for the words “After On.” The broader series is built around deep-dive interviews with world-class thinkers, founders, and scientists and tends to be very tech- and science-heavy.
Finally, if you’re curious about the latest episode in the main After On podcast feed, this week it’s an interview with Harvard’s David Reich—a top pioneer in the emerging field of ancient DNA. Specifically, the genetic code of Neanderthals, Denisovans, archaic Homo sapiens, and other elders. In just a few years, this field came out of nowhere to reconfigure much of our understanding of human history. More electrifying, it could well save hundreds of thousands of modern human lives per year.
This special edition of the Ars Technicast podcast can be accessed in the following places:
https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/the-ars-technicast/id522504024?mt=2 (Might take several hours after publication to appear.)