On HumansSeptember 10, 202300:48:2833.29 MB

26 | Do Machines Improve the Human Condition? ~ Daron Acemoglu

Machines allow us to do more work with less effort. They sound like an obviously good thing. But there is a tension here. New gadgets and new technologies - new simple “machines” - have been invented throughout history. But it looks like the living standard of the average person did not change for most of that time.

So what happened to all the extra output from new technologies? And how is this relevant to our age of computers, robots, and AI? 

To discuss these themes, I am joined by MIT professor Daron Acemoglu. Acemoglu is a true legend in his field. In 2015, he was ranked the single most cited economist of the past 10 years. And his most famous book, Why Nations Fail, (co-authored with James Robinson) is known by many students of economics as the only history book they ever had to read. 

But today’s conversation is not about Why Nations Fail. It is about Acemoglu’s new book, Power and Progress: Our 1000-Year Struggle Over Technology (co-authored with Simon Johnson).

In many ways, this is a typical Acemoglu book: it is a doorstopper that uses an array of historical lessons to draw messages for the present. And as before, it asks economists to take democratic politics more seriously.

But in other ways, this is quite different from his previous books. For me, it felt much darker – especially in its portrayal of rich countries such as the US. But Acemoglu affirmed to me that he is still an optimist. He even tells me that the reason is related to the theme of this podcast series... I will let him tell you why.

We discuss topics such as:

  • Why have so many machines failed to benefit the common folk? 
  • Why things changed for the better in the late 1800s - and why my past guests are wrong about the reasons?
  • Have we started backsliding again? 
  • Does this explain the political turmoil of today - especially in the US?
  • Why Acemoglu is not against technological progress - but has a message to tech leaders 
  • What has his work in economics taught Acemoglu about humanity?



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Oded Galor (episodes 12 & 13), Brad DeLong (episode 18) / Josh Ober / Ian Morris / Samuel Bowles / Herbert Gintis /John Hicks / H. J. / Robert Allen / Habakkuk / Joel Mokyr / Elon Musk / Pascual Restrepo

Other terms and references

Malthusian dynamics (of population growth “eating away” any increases in production) 

Chartists and Luddites (19th Century British political movements)