Inflection points and advanced robotics

This morning’s Observer column.

Not often do you hear a Newsnight presenter using an arcane mathematical term, but last week was an exception. The culprit was David Grossman, who made an excellent film for Newsnight about the threat to employment from advanced robotics. In the course of this, he made the standard pilgrimage to MIT to interview Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee, who have made much of the running in this area with a number of books, of which the most recent is The Second Machine Age. Their argument, said Grossman, was that our society has reached an “inflection point”, a concept beloved of those who studied differential calculus in their youth, but probably unfamiliar to the average viewer.

Still, that’s what Wikipedia is for. A point of inflection, it explains, is a point on a curve at which the curvature or concavity changes sign from plus to minus (or vice versa). Since this sounds like a smaller deal than the wholesale upheaval prophesied by Brynjolfsson and McAfee, Grossman might have got more mileage out of “tipping point”, which, though different to inflection, seems to me to get closer to the nub of the question.

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