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The Second Machine Age

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More than 100 years ago, the first Machine Age gave to society the high-speed printing press, the assembly line, and reliable long-distance travel via the steam engine. Friday, in a very hip Midtown Manhattan event space, 500 of the smartest people M.I.T. could offer gathered to discuss the coming of the second Machine Age and the danger it poses to mankind.

"I don't get asked too many questions about the Terminator thing," said Irving Wladawsky-Berger, a visiting lecturer in information technology at the M.I.T. Sloan School of Management.

"You know, I get a little bit tired of it because whether or not that's a threat that we're ever going to face -- maybe it is, maybe it isn't -- it's not the threat that we're going to face now," M.I.T.'s Andrew McAfee said.

McAfee spoke at "M.I.T. and the Digital Economy: The Second Machine Age" because he serves as co-director of the M.I.T. Initiative on the Digital Economy and he co-authored the best-selling book "The Second Machine Age."

"Technology is racing ahead and that's fantastic," he said. "But in some important ways, it's leaving a lot of people behind."

While the first Machine Age brought about developments in physical power that mostly complemented humans, minds like McAfee's worry today's innovations -- with their focus on mental power -- could replace us.

"There's also a set of economic challenges that come up relating to the classic middle-class, median, American worker to have a good meaningful job that pays a wage that can support a family," McAfee said.

So a roomful of M.I.T. degrees (and then some), tweed jackets, and throbbing brains gathered off Broadway to discuss how to harness these machines we created, which continue to improve upon human jobs and human skills.

"We don't know what this new digital economy will be all about," Wladawsky-Berger said.

"Our idea is: we ought to think about that now and come up with ways to fix it and make it better," said Sandy Pentland, professor of media, arts and sciences at M.I.T.

All in attendance expected private entrepreneurship to play a large role in any solution mankind discovers, but what exactly that free enterprise would produce no one at the forum knew.

As for the rise of any SkyNet set on exterminating the human race?

"That is good science fiction," Wladawsky-Berger said, "but the complexity is not science fiction."

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