The Robots Will Take Our Jobs. Then What?

Martin Ford, author of Rise of the Robots and The Lights In the Tunnel

Martin Ford, author of Rise of the Robots and The Lights In the Tunnel

The writing is on the wall: the robots will take our jobs. Martin Ford, author of Rise of the Robots, explains the implications for human beings and the market-driven capitalist system. 

It’s no longer news that artificial intelligence (AI) can defeat professional players in mind games such as poker and chess, but have you imagined that one day, such software could outperform ordinary workers at what they do for a living?

When it comes to the potential impact AI could bring, mass-unemployment is probably a more realistic concern for us than, say, the Skynet (the murderous AI system of the Terminator film franchise), says Martin Ford, a technology entrepreneur and author of two books about how tomorrow’s technology might give a fatal blow to the social structure that we thrive on today. If we look far enough into the future, Ford says, few jobs would be safe from being automated, as algorithms with deep learning capabilities would take over not only entry-level jobs, but also those requiring years of training and experience.

“In terms of jobs [that may be done by AI]… the important word there is ‘predictable’,” Ford says. “If another smart person could study a record of everything you’ve done in the past in your job and based on that, learn how to do your job, then someday, maybe a machine might be able to do the same thing.”

Ford’s warning of a jobless future is not entirely new; and as always, the idea is controversial because opponents argue that historically, workers have survived rounds of technological revolution and they always managed to find other jobs in newly emerged industries. But Ford disagrees. He says that the rise of AI will impact almost any industry because the determining factor here is not workers’ skill-sets, but the nature of the job.

“People have been able to move from one kind of job to another kind of job and still do things that are relatively routine and within their capabilities,” Ford says. “It may be hard for a lot of people with average capability and skill-set to really find a place in the economy [in the future].”

So how soon would that scenario come true? And before it does, how can the society possibly adapt to the economic and social changes it is likely to bring? We discussed these questions with Ford in a recent interview in Beijing.

Interview excerpts:

Q. What led you to this conclusion that robotics will transform our world and what are some of the early signs of this scenario that you already see unfolding?

A. Well, I began thinking about this partly because of my own experience and my own business. I started a very small software company in Silicon Valley back in the 1990s. Back then, making software was pretty labor-intensive because software was produced on physical media, on CD-ROMs, and there was a printed manual that went with it, and it all had to be packed up in a box and sent to the customer. So if you ran a small company, there were jobs there for average people and there was a fair amount of that work. But what I saw in my own little business is that within a few years, that just kind of went away. Now, software is delivered electronically, sometimes it’s not even delivered, it’s hosted in a Cloud or something. So a lot of that routine work for average people just kind of disappeared. It occurred to me that what I was seeing was really a preview of what was likely to unfold in the whole economy.

Q. In what ways is the current technological revolution very different from the ones we’ve seen before?

A. The main thing is that machines and software today are taking on intellectual tasks. They’re not like the machines of the past that just substituted for muscle power. You had powerful machines that were much stronger than people or stronger than horses and animals and they displaced a lot of workers, but they couldn’t think. Today’s machines, in a limited, specialized sense are at least able to think, to make decisions, to solve problems, and most importantly, they can learn. We’ve now got algorithms that actually can learn, that can figure out things for themselves. And that’s what’s dramatically different.

(Watch the video below)

Q. Which jobs and industries are likely to be most vulnerable to automation in the near future?

A. Well, in terms of jobs, it’s going to be the jobs that are more routine and repetitive and predictable. The important word there is predictable, because that sort of ties in with this idea of machine learning, which is the thing that is really driving all of this. If you’ve got data, lots of historical data that kind of encapsulates the way a job has been done in the past, you’re going to have algorithms that can go through that data and learn from it and figure out how to do a lot of things, and that’s what we’re seeing with machine learning.

You can think of it in terms of another person. If another smart person could study a record of everything you’ve done in the past in your job and based on that, learn how to do your job, then someday, maybe a machine might be able to do the same thing. So that’s a good gauge of whether a particular job might be susceptible to this.

Q. What about the more creative jobs? The ones where there’s maybe some emotion involved?

A. For now, we can say that those are probably the safest jobs, and if you want to be in an occupation that is relatively safe from this, you’re going to want to have a kind of job where you’re doing things that are creative, or where you have a lot of interpersonal reaction with people. But you can never say never.

Clearly, technology is getting better in those areas as well. There is research on creative algorithms that have, for example, been demonstrated to write music and paint pictures, original pictures, and design things using geometric programming. So there is innovation in that area, and there’s also innovation in an area of emotional robots, robots that can interact with people in a human-like way. There’s also a lot of research being done on that as well. If you think long enough into the future, there are no jobs that are completely safe.

Q. In previous cycles, whenever such disruption has happened, people have always found something else to do. They shift to something else—a different sector, or a different skill. What do you think will be the solution this time around?

A. Well, in the past, that worked because the machines hadn’t replaced all the routine work. People have been able to move from one kind of job to another kind of job and still do things that are relatively routine and within their capabilities.

Not everyone can be trained to be a top-flight scientist or someone that is creating or innovating. Most people are average and they’re best-equipped to do average things, so I think that one of this issues that we’re going to face in the future is that as machines across the board in every industry can displace those kinds of jobs. It may be hard for a lot of people with average capability and skill-set to really find a place in the economy.

Q. So how smart can software get? How much of that thinking ability can we get into machines and artificial intelligence?

A. That’s the open question. A lot of people working in the field believe that we will someday build a machine that is as smart as a human and can think like a human. And people also believe that if that ever happens, it’s inevitable that the machine will become much smarter than people, so there’ll be what’s called an “intelligence explosion”, the smart computer will start designing a better version of itself, and before we know it, we’ll be second rate entities on this planet.

There’ll be these machines that are vastly more intelligent than we are and a lot of people worry about what that will mean, including some very smart prominent people. Stephen Hawking, the famous physicist, is really worried about this and has written articles warning that artificial intelligence could be an existential threat to human beings. That’s one possible outcome. I don’t think we’re close to that, but it could happen in the further future.

Q. So right now, people have a purpose —they live lives, they have a work life, they are useful. What will happen to that in the future?

A. Right now, people tend to look to their jobs for two things. One is that it’s an income that you need, and the other is that it gives you this sense of purpose and fulfillment. I think that one of the challenges for the future is going to decouple those two things so that you might get your income from one place and you get this sense of fulfillment for doing something useful from somewhere else. There are plenty of things that you could do that are useful and are important that don’t necessarily bring an income, so I think that’s probably the wave of the future.

Q. Thomas Davenport, a renowned expert on knowledge workers, is of the opinion that as there’s increased automation, it might actually improve the possibilities of employment in ways in which knowledge workers, especially, collaborate with machines to do things that neither could do well on their own. What are your thoughts?

A. There’s a debate about this. I tend to believe that those collaboration jobs will be there, there will be some, but I don’t think there will be millions and millions of those jobs, and that’s what we’re facing. I also think that as time progresses, the technology gets better and better, and it will begin to get more autonomous. It will begin to displace people and work without that level of collaboration.

Q. How deeply have you looked at China in this regard? In the last three years in China, we’ve been seeing the impact of technology—such as Foxconn’s army of Foxbots.

A. China is bringing in more and more robots. In a year or two, they’ll have more robots than any other country in the world. And yet, the number of robots you have relative to workers is very low compared to other countries, so there’s a long way to go.

At the same time, these technologies are also coming to the service sector and of course, that’s the sector that’s supposed to absorb the workers that lose their jobs to manufacturing robots. So in the case of China, everything is kind of happening at once, more so than was the case in the past in the US and other countries, which I think could be quite disruptive here.

Q. In the end, when we finally see this scenario unfold, what do you see the role of the government will be, in different countries, of course, and what is the future of the current market-driven capitalist system?

A. That’s the question. One of the implications of this is that if we really start to lose a lot of jobs, or if we drive down wages of workers because of technology, then people have less money to spend, so that undermines demand, and could eventually undermine capitalism. If you’re a business, you can’t sell if there’s no one to buy your product. And that’s sort of the foundation of capitalism.

So I think if we want capitalism to continue to succeed, we’re going to have to adapt it. And I think that will require something eventually like a guaranteed income, another mechanism to distribute purchasing power throughout the economy. Everyone, whether they have a job or not, will have access to some sort of an income so that they can survive and get by. And that’s a very radical, controversial idea right now, but I think that eventually its time may come because of this disruptive impact.

Q. What are some science fiction movies that you’ve seen that best reflect your ideas of how society will evolve in the future?

A. I think the one example that most people would give as a very utopian example that we would like to be is Star Trek. They’ve got this economy that is apparently post-capitalism—no one wants for anything, they’ve got a thing called the materializer that just produces anything you want, people don’t work for money, they work for fulfillment because they want a sense of purpose. So I think that’s the utopian image that we all have in our minds that we would like to strive for. And of course that’s a much better example than the very dystopian examples of movies like The Terminator and The Matrix and all of these other Hollywood movies where the robots kill us all or do something else terrible to us. That’s what we should strive for, but if we want to be on that path to that kind of very optimistic outcome we’re going to have to recognize these forces and adapt to them.

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