• July 2015

Is Average Over?

By Michael Vidikan
Founder and President
Future In Focus

Tyler Cowen, a professor of economics at George Mason University and popular economics blogger, made waves with his bestseller Average Is Over, a controversial and compelling forecast that maintains that the modern world is on the cusp of a sea change, brought on largely by the rise of artificial intelligence (AI).

“The basic look of our lives … hasn’t been revolutionized all that much in 40 to 50 years,” Cowen writes. “That’s about to change.”

Why? According to Cowen, the inexorable trend toward automation of work and daily life will be the key force in a massive societal disruption that is only now beginning to be felt. Looking ahead 20 to 30 years, Cowen contends that machine intelligence will kill most middle-class jobs, as well as the broad prosperity that has characterized America and other advanced economies since the 1950s. Instead, the future will belong to a minority of people who have the talent and discipline to work effectively with smart machines.

The key questions will be: Are you good at working with intelligent machines or not? Do your skills complement the computer’s skills, or does the computer do better without you? Worst of all, are you competing against the computer? “Ever more people are starting to fall on one side of this divide or the other,” he avers.

Building on this central insight, Cowen evokes a wide-ranging vision of a sharply divided world in which most people either thrive at the top of the ladder or subsist on the lower rungs. In work, wealth, education, residential geography, intimate relationships, and virtually every other aspect of life, the world will be increasingly divided into winners and losers, abundance and lack, haves and have-nots.

Middle classes — along with tolerance for mediocrity, mistakes, and general muddling through — will largely disappear, as people either push their way to the top or fall permanently behind. America sits at the leading edge of this change, but the paradigm will expand to other developed societies and will upset the developing world as well. Soon, he says, average will be over.

3 KEY FINDINGS

  • Machine intelligence is poised to disrupt practically every aspect of modern society, ultimately giving rise to a “hyper-meritocracy.”
  • Societies will split into three tiers — a wealthy elite, a lower-middle class of well-educated but underemployed people, and the poor — divided by individuals’ ability to work with computers.
  • The hyper-meritocratic future could be mitigated by social networking, targeted policy reforms, or other countertrends.

3 SKILLS OF THE FUTURE

In a world in which human/machine teams have become the most effective way to solve problems and create value, workers will receive the highest rewards for certain kinds of talents and skills:

  • Math and analytic skills for designing, programming, and teaming with intelligent machines
  • Ability to complement machine intelligence with real-world context and problem-solving
  • Consumer insight, especially an understanding of how consumers want to interact with smart systems

3 BUSINESS IMPLICATIONS

Cowen’s vision in “Average Is Over” has frequently been called “compelling” due to its plausibility, detail, and strong supporting evidence. Many of its forecasts could bear out. Businesses might consider outlining the book and using its key insights to inform robust strategies that can stand up to the sea changes that probably lie ahead. Most obviously, of course, automation and AI will become increasingly central to the world of work, and businesses will need to reframe hiring and training around the requisite skills.

Given current trends, the forecast that an expanded tier of super-wealthy elites will become the key consumer group looks plausible. Companies and most workers will succeed by catering to the needs of this tier.

Many aspects of Cowen’s future look positive for employers, even if they make workers’ lives more difficult. AI-enabled metrics will allow companies to measure and maximize productivity and profits with unprecedented precision. Managers and executives will have extremely accurate views of the strengths and weaknesses of their enterprises (and their individual employees), and they will be able to quickly reject anything that isn’t serving their success — from a strategic direction to a front-line employee.

What are the benefits of a meritocratic world? What are the drivers? And how will women and men behave in the new world of work?

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