THE ROBOTS HAVEN’T just landed in the workplace—they’re expanding skills, moving up the corporate ladder, showing awesome productivity and retention rates, and increasingly shoving aside their human counterparts. One multi-tasker bot, from Momentum Machines, can make (and flip) a gourmet hamburger in 10 seconds and could soon replace an entire McDonalds crew. A manufacturing device from Universal Robots doesn’t just solder, paint, screw, glue, and grasp—it builds new parts for itself on the fly when they wear out or bust. And just this week, Google won a patent to start building worker robots with personalities.
As intelligent machines begin their march on labor and become more sophisticated and specialized than first-generation cousins like Roomba or Siri, they have an outspoken champion in their corner: author and entrepreneur Martin Ford. In his new book, Rise of the Robots, he argues that AI and robotics will soon overhaul our economy.
Rise of the Robots
There’s some logic to the thesis, of course, and other economists such as Andrew (The Second Machine Age) McAfee have sided generally with Ford’s outlook. Oxford University researchers have estimated that 47 percent of U.S. jobs could be automated within the next two decades. And if even half that number is closer to the mark, workers are in for a rude awakening.
In Ford’s vision, a full-on worker revolt is on the horizon, followed by a radically new economic state whereby humans will live more productive and entrepreneurial lives, subsisting on guaranteed incomes generated by our amazing machines. (Don’t laugh — even some conservative influencers believe this may be the ultimate means of solving the wealth-inequality dilemma.)
Sound a little nuts? We thought so—we’re human, after all—so we invited Ford to defend his turf.
Critics say your vision of a jobless future isn’t founded in good research or logic. What makes you so convinced this phenomenon is real?
I see the advances happening in technology and it’s becoming evident that computers, machines, robots, and algorithms are going to be able to do most of the routine, repetitive types of jobs. That’s the essence of what machine learning is all about. What types of jobs are on some level fundamentally predictable? A lot of different skill levels fall into that category. It’s not just about lower-skilled jobs either. People with college degrees, even professional degrees, people like lawyers are doing things that ultimately are predictable. A lot of those jobs are going to be susceptible over time.
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Right now there’s still a lot of debate over it. There are economists who think it’s totally wrong, that problems really stem from things like globalization or the fact that we’ve wiped out unions or haven’t raised the minimum wage. Those are all important, but I tend to believe that technology is a bigger issue, especially as we look to the future.
Eventually I think we’ll get to the point where there’s less debate about whether this is really happening or not. There will be more widespread agreement that it really is a problem and at that point we’ll have to figure out what to do about it.
Aren’t you relying on some pretty radical and unlikely assumptions?
People who are very skeptical tend to look at the historical record. It’s true that the economy has always adapted over time. It has created new kinds of jobs. The classic example of that is agriculture. In the 1800s, 80 percent of the U.S. labor force worked on farms. Today it’s 2 percent. Obviously mechanization didn’t destroy the economy; it made it better off. Food is now really cheap compared to what it was relative to income, and as a result people have money to spend on other things and they’ve transitioned to jobs in other areas. Skeptics say that will happen again.
The agricultural revolution was about specialized technology that couldn’t be implemented in other industries. You couldn’t take the farm machinery and have it go flip hamburgers. Information technology is totally different. It’s a broad-based general purpose technology. There isn’t a new place for all these workers to move.
You can imagine lots of new industries—nanotechnology and synthetic biology—but they won’t employ many people. They’ll use lots of technology, rely on big computing centers, and be heavily automated.
So in the all-automated economy, what will ambitious 20-somethings choose to do with their lives and careers?
My proposed solution is to have some kind of a guaranteed income that incentivizes education. We don’t want people to get halfway through high school and say, ‘Well if I drop out I’m still going to get the same income as everyone else.’
Then I believe that a guaranteed income would actually result in more entrepreneurship. A lot of people would start businesses just as they do today. The problem with these types of businesses you can start online today is it’s hard to put enough together to generate a middle-class income.
If people had an income floor, and if the incentives were such that on top of that they could do other things and still keep that extra money, without having it all taxed away, then I think a lot of people would pursue those opportunities.
There’s a phenomenon called the Peltzman Effect, based on research from an economist at the University of Chicago who studied auto accidents. He found that when you introduce more safety features like seat belts into cars, the number of fatalities and injuries doesn’t drop. The reason is that people compensate for it. When you have a safety net in place, people will take more risks. That probably is true of the economic arena as well.
People say that having a guaranteed income will turn everyone into a slacker and destroy the economy. I think the opposite might be true, that it might push us toward more entrepreneurship and more risk-taking.