Race Against the Machine

Innovation and Economic Growth

Article Snapshot


Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee


Digital Frontier Press, Lexington, MA, 2011


This book argues that computers are increasingly displacing many workers, causing both economic growth and unemployment.

Policy Relevance

Governments can adopt numerous policies to help the workforce adapt to an economy where computers are ubiquitous in production.

Main Points

  • The 2008-2009 recession seemed to generate a remarkable level of unemployment, much of it long-term.
  • Much of this unemployment was not the temporary cyclical unemployment that usually accompanies a recession. Instead, job loss occurred when a small number of computer-aided positions displaced labor historically carried out by many workers.
  • In the past, computers excelled at simple rule-based tasks like computing arithmetic problems. Now, advances in software have made computers much better at pattern recognition, meaning that they can replace humans in a wider array of jobs.


    • For example, Google has created a system to automate auto driving.
    • Work requiring more education is not immune: beginning attorneys who once reviewed documents have been displaced by document review software.
  • In the long run, the work force will probably adapt, as it did when people moved to cities from newly-mechanized farms. In the short run, adjustments are likely to be painful, as many workers see their skills become devalued.


    • Policies that encourage the development of new business models that let people work with computers, rather than against them, can help ease the transition.
    • Similarly, the education system can be retooled to both exploit information technology in instruction and to help students develop skills that complement computer-based tools.


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