Martin Ford, the author of Rise of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of a Jobless Future, visited Australia recently for some speaking and media appearances. In a radio interview, he made the point that the old fix of education won’t work this time because the technology is too advanced and continues to move ahead rapidly.
The interviewer, Eleanor Hall, sounded familiar with the subject and asked intelligent questions. You can listen to the ten-minute audio file here.
Here in the U.S., this week’s jobs report showed a record high number of people not in the workforce — more than 94 million. The labor force participation rate remained stuck at 62.6 percent, a 38-year low, for a third straight month.
Jobs and the economy are a big topic in the Presidential campaign, but I haven’t heard anyone discuss the threat of automation even though technological unemployment extends from factory work to white collar occupations like law and finance. The candidates promote retraining for the jobless, but that response is no longer a solution in the big automated economy, according to Ford.
Oxford researchers have estimated that nearly half of US jobs are susceptible to automation by 2033, and all evidence indicates that smart machines are creating substantial job loss now and the trend is partially responsible for the jobless recovery.
In addition, because of automation, robots and computers, the U.S. does not need to admit any immigrant workers at all. ZERO.
Here’s a transcript of the interview with Martin Ford:
What will we do when machines take our jobs?, ABC Australia, September 3, 2015
ELEANOR HALL: Well, let’s go now to that warming from a Silicon Valley entrepreneur that robots are advancing so quickly that they’re now taking over even creative jobs, and that we’re not facing up to the global shock this will deliver.
Martin Ford is the founder of a Silicon Valley software development company and has just written his second book: The Rise of the Robots: Technology and the threat of mass unemployment.
He is in Sydney for the Festival of Dangerous Ideas and he joined me in The World Today studio.
Martin Ford, thanks very much for coming in.
MARTIN FORD: Thank you, it’s great to be here.
ELEANOR HALL: Now technology is normally associated with improving human lives, even when it’s taken over people’s jobs, it’s created new jobs and continued to see economies thrive, yet your book is practically shouting at us to sit up and take notice, this technology shift that we’re living through is different.
What is different this time and why should we be concerned out it?
MARTIN FORD: Well, it is different. There’s no doubt that technology has been a very positive force and I think that it can continue to be a very positive force, but I do think this time is different.
Today’s technology, the machines and the algorithms and the robots are, to some degree, becoming intelligent. It’s not just about doing manual labour as it was in the past.
Now we’ve got robots and machines and algorithms that are taking over brain power and it’s much more broad based. It’s ubiquitous, these technologies are everywhere.
They’re going to invade every industry across the board.
ELEANOR HALL: And you make a pretty terrifying prediction that the latest wave of technological change could in fact trigger economic and social collapse?
MARTIN FORD: Well, if you take it to its extreme, and that assumes that we don’t do anything to adapt to it, what potentially could happen is that things will just become more and more and more unequal.
So what will happen is that all the income throughout the economy is going to really accrue to the people that own the machines and especially in countries like the United States which are, you know, much more unequal than Australia already, that’s a tiny number of people, and we’re seeing that drive toward increased inequality happening really throughout the world.
It will get worse and worse, and what that means is that you’ll have fewer and fewer people that really have the means to thrive and you’ll have fewer and fewer consumers out there to buy the products and the services that are produced, so that’s sort of a recipe for a downward spiral.
ELEANOR HALL: So let’s look more closely at how this latest technological shift that you say is uniquely disruptive is affecting jobs.
As you say we’ve seen how machines have taken over many repetitive jobs and physically demanding jobs, and that’s often seen as a good thing, but you’re saying robots will now take over knowledge jobs that require complex analysis and judgement, like for example law. I mean how will they do that?
MARTIN FORD: Well, the technology that’s sort of central to this, the thing that’s really driving it is machine learning and this is the ability of algorithms to churn through data and based on that, learn from it and figure out how to do things for themselves.
So this really completely upends the conventional view that a lot of people have of computers, which is that computers have to be programmed step by step to do specific things. That’s actually not the reality anymore.
We’ve moved far beyond that and machine learning is getting applied just universally and as you said, one good example is the field of law where we now have what are called e-discovery algorithms and what they’re taking on is this specific area of law that involves reviewing documents for court cases and figuring out which ones are relevant and important.
There are smart algorithms that generate news stories that are taking over at least basic journalism and there are some really major media companies that now rely quite extensively on these algorithms. Some of them don’t like to disclose that.
You know, these are systems that can produce stories in areas like financial reporting and sports reporting and they’re getting better and better.
You know, it’s not just simply a matter of plugging numbers into some formulaic report. They already have the capability to analyse data and figure out what’s interesting and weave it into a pretty compelling narrative.
You know, that’s comparable to what a human being could do.
So these technologies are coming after the skilled jobs, the good jobs, the jobs that college graduates might want to take and really kind of upends this conventional view that the solution to all of this is more education.
You know, the idea that if you lose your low skilled job then we’ll send you back to school and give you some more training so that you can move up the skills ladder. That’s looking like it may not work so well because the technology is also coming after those skilled jobs.
ELEANOR HALL: What about the demand that we’re seeing in countries like yours and mine for more local, more customised, more artisan style products. I mean won’t that keep humans closely involved in the production process?
MARTIN FORD: I think that that’s going to be a partial solution to all of this. There is a trend toward that and there are technologies that will enable that, you know 3D printing is one thing that’s going to enable small businesses and individuals to do truly amazing things, but I do think that that’s probably continued to be something of a niche.
You know, I often hear people say that that’s the whole future that our whole economy is going to look like that. I’m very sceptical of that. I think that the craft-based type economy is sort of a partial solution to this but not a systemic one.
ELEANOR HALL: I found your Japanese sushi example quite surprising because sushi chefs have such highly prized artisan skills traditionally that you wouldn’t think their jobs could be done by robots. Tell us what’s going on there?
MARTIN FORD: Right, there’s a sort of a fast food sushi chain in Japan that uses lots of automation. They’ve got conveyor belts that deliver the sushi, they’ve got robotic, you know, cutters so they really eliminated a lot of the labour and, as you say, sushi is, in many ways considered to be almost an art form.
It, you know, it’s not just, it’s very different from hamburgers for example and yet even here you see that so I think that really is a pretty good predictor of how a lot of the fast food industry especially is going to evolve.
ELEANOR HALL: Artificial intelligence, how far is it now beyond the chess champion computer?
MARTIN FORD: It’s definitely getting better and better. One area of artificial intelligence that is getting a lot of attention now is what’s called deep learning and you now see these systems that are able, for example, to recognise images as well as or in some cases even better than a human being and that’s really quite amazing.
I mean the fact that a machine can do that is really something genuinely new because pattern recognition, the ability to look at the environment and recognise images and patters and sounds, these are all skills that have been, up until now, uniquely human.
ELEANOR HALL: You show in your book that computers are already doing quite creative tasks like writing symphonies. I mean the London Symphony Orchestra recently played a symphony that was written by a computer.
MARTIN FORD: That’s right. There is definite research into what are called creative machines and they are writing symphonies. There’s a system that can paint original works of art.
Again, that kind of upends one of our basic assumptions about all of this, which is that if you’re creative then you’ll be safe, right, but one of the basic rules of this is that you can never say never.
ELEANOR HALL: But even if robots do take over more and more of our jobs, couldn’t that be a good thing, I mean, giving people time, seeing a renaissance in culture and leisure activities and community engagement?
MARTIN FORD: Absolutely, I mean that’s fundamentally the choice that we face. It could be a very utopian scenario where people have more time for the things that they enjoy, more time for their families where no one has to do a job that they hate, no one has to do a job that is really difficult or dangerous, but the caveat there is it will be great only if people have access to some kind of an income from somewhere.
So that’s the utopian outcome, but there’s also a dystopian outcome and that’s, when these technologies displace workers and we don’t do anything to adapt to that, and so, more and more, people are going to be under economic stress.
You’re going to see some people in countries like the United States that are literally going to be homeless. That’s the choice we have to make. I mean I think that’s a big part of the reason that I wrote this book is to try to initiate that conversation, get people thinking about that, because I really think it’s going to be a critical decision for us over the next couple of decades.
ELEANOR HALL: What is the choice that we have to make? What are the options?
MARTIN FORD: There may be several options. The one that I advocate in the book that I think makes the most sense is that eventually we’re going to have to move towards some sort of a guaranteed minimum income so that everyone, regardless of whether they can find a traditional job or not, will have access to at least a decent income in our society.
You know, you give people a certain amount of money and then they and go out and participate in the market.
Part of it would be a more progressive tax on the people that are increasingly accumulating all the income and that is of course, the people that own these technologies. It is going to be an extraordinary political challenge, especially in the US where, you know, where I would have to say it’s pretty much unthinkable at this time to even propose it, but nonetheless, I think that that’s the paradox.
It is very difficult, but something that we’re eventually going to have to do if we want to have shared prosperity in the future.
ELEANOR HALL: Is there an option to do more to try to control or slow down this technology revolution?
MARTIN FORD: You know, that’s a solution that I think you will see proposed. More and more often, I would not advocate that because as you said right in the beginning, technology has made us more prosperous.
There’s no doubt about that, and I think it will continue to do that. The problem is that we’re reaching a kind of inflection point where the nature of that progress is going to be different and in particular it’s going to have profound distributional issues and it’s going to be more and more concentrated on the few people that really own the capital.
ELEANOR HALL: Martin Ford, thanks so much for joining us.
MARTIN FORD: Thanks so much for having me.
ELEANORH HALL: That’s Silicon Valley entrepreneur Martin Ford, and his book is called The Rise of the Robots: Technology and the threat of mass unemployment.