Time to rethink society

Machine learning and artificial intelligence will decimate the current jobs market, says Martin Ford, author of Rise of the Robots. But if we take the opportunity to fundamentally rethink society, it could eventually result in a kind of utopia.

In the past, technology has always created jobs as well as destroyed them. Why won’t that happen again?

“First, we’ve got this ongoing acceleration in technology which I think will continue. Second, the machines are thinking now, they’re learning. We’ve got machine learning algorithms, which is one of the most disruptive things. Third, machine learning is a true general purpose technology in the sense that it’s going to be everywhere and invade every sector of the economy and every industry, similar to the way electricity has. For me, it’s very hard to imagine some new sector of the economy arising that is going to be very labour-intensive and that will create jobs for millions of average people.

Over the next couple of decades, people are going to be essentially out-competed. They’re going to see machines and technology encroach on what they do and a lot of people are going to be left behind. I don’t think this is necessarily dystopian. If we do adapt to it, it could be very utopian. It could mean a world where we don’t have to do dangerous or boring or unpleasant jobs, because technology will take on more and more of those. Whether it’s utopian or dystopian is going to be our choice.”

In the book you cite estimates that up to 50% of current jobs will disappear. Is that realistic?

“The most famous estimate is from a couple of guys at Oxford who said 47% of the jobs in the United States were susceptible to automation in the next couple of decades. I wouldn’t give too much credence to a precise number, but I do think it’s a big number. A large percentage of our workforce do predictable things. They come to work and do the same things again and again, or they do things that can be predicted based on what they’ve done in the past. This means that if a machine learning algorithm goes through historical data, it will eventually be able to figure out how to do a lot of that work, which is what drives those estimates of up to 50% of jobs being threatened.”


You first published a book about technology in 2009. Have things moved faster or slower than you expected then?

“In some ways faster. When I wrote that first book, I thought we’d see self-driving cars someday, but not soon, and yet within a few months Google had a vehicle on the road. We have had the same kinds of breakthroughs with Watson and DeepMind.

I think things are moving at least as fast as I anticipated. The other change between those two books is that there is much more awareness and interest. When I wrote The Lights in the Tunnel this was a fringe issue and most people were dismissive. Now I do speaking engagements all over the world.”

And what kind of reaction do you get when you talk to people?

“I speak to a lot of elite audiences – financial industry, Wall Street types – and there’s some scepticism there, but also a keen interest. When you speak to regular people, they’re really more in tune with it. They really realise what’s happening and are, to some extent, worried about it because they see the impact already.”

They see their jobs being lost, or those of their friends or family…

“Right. So it’s a really important conversation for us to be having. This is going to be a big issue. We need to start talking about it, and the sooner we start having that conversation the better.”

History teaches us that insecurity and poverty triggers political and social instability. That’s not a happy prospect.

“There’s already a lot of anger out there among middle class and working class people that feel that they’ve been left behind. This manifests in the United States with Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders, and in the UK with Brexit. I think technology is playing a larger role than perhaps people realise. People point to immigration and globalisation, but I think technology is playing a big role. If you offshore jobs, then those people are essentially entering the jobs market electronically. It’s only possible because of technology.”

Are there specific technologies that worry you? Is machine learning the big one?

“Machine learning and, in particular, deep learning, which is the latest iteration of neural networks. We’re seeing some remarkable breakthroughs in pattern recognition, with machines beginning to do things that only humans could do – and actually doing it better in areas like recognising visual images. And that’s a very scalable technology. It’s finding its way into white collar applications, where you’re just automating knowledge work, and it’s also finding its way into robots and self-driving cars and machines that are impacting blue collar jobs.”

Is any type of job safe?

“I would say that in the long run, 50 years from now, almost anything might be susceptible. It’s robots that are going to flip hamburgers and drive vehicles. It’s smart systems that are going to take on knowledge work now done by people who have university degrees. In the next 10, 20 years, if you’re doing something genuinely creative, that’s probably relatively safe, as are occupations that require deep interpersonal relationships or a lot of mobility and dexterity, such as nursing and skilled trades like electricians and plumbers. I think it will be quite a while before we can build a robot to do those kinds of jobs. It’s the routine and predictable jobs that will be threated first.”

What about the impact on emerging markets?

“It’s going to have a different impact in different countries, but if you look at actual robots in factories, the impact is going to be much bigger in the developing world because they are much more dependent on manufacturing. There’s a huge push in China [to automate factories]. Nike makes its shoes in really low-wage countries, but even they are moving aggressively to automate a lot of that.”

Adidas is to start making shoes in Germany again, but with machines.

“Right. You have the reshoring phenomenon where companies come back to be close to markets, but a lot of these factories are automated. There’s a textile factory in the United States that in the 1980s employed 2,000 people. Now it’s returned, but only with 150 jobs. This is why China is aggressively automating, because they don’t want their factories to reshore. But a really big question is about the really poor countries that haven’t got on that path to prosperity yet. What are they going to do? Historically, countries have become wealthy by building factories and creating lots of unskilled jobs. That era may be coming to an end.”

In your book you talk about techno-feudalism. Can you explain it?

“One of the dystopian outcomes I foresee is that we have extraordinary inequality, with the rich essentially creating their own society, leaving everyone else to fend for themselves. The only caveat is that even wealthy people exist in the economy, and that economy needs consumers. All the important industries that drive the market are mass-market industries that rely on enormous numbers of people to buy their products. If people don’t have jobs and incomes, that’s a threat to the whole economy and maybe capitalism itself, and that could threaten the wealthy as well.”

This is why you advocate a guaranteed income?

“Yes. Right now we have a mechanism that gets income from producers (businesses) to people (consumers) who can then buy things. And that mechanism is jobs. Now, if technology is going to erode that mechanism, we’ve got to find a replacement for it. We’ve got to replicate what jobs do in getting income into the hands of consumers, and I think some kind of guaranteed income is probably the simplest and easiest way to do that.”

What do you say to people who brand it as socialism?

“The idea of a guaranteed income has been supported by many conservative and libertarian people, most notably by Friedrich Hayek, Milton Friedman and so on, so it’s actually a market-oriented approach. You give people money and they go and participate in the economy. You have to assume that if technology eliminates large numbers of jobs, people are going to demand something. They’re going to want their government to do something, and it’s either the big-government socialism approach of trying to take over industry to protect jobs, or the more market-oriented guaranteed income approach, which I think would be much better.”

And you would also be able to earn without losing your guaranteed income?

“That’s key. If you tax it away, you create a poverty trap and people have no incentive to do better because they are worried about losing what they have. That’s a really stupid policy that’s pretty prevalent. So it’s important to make sure that doesn’t occur.”

There’s an assumption in this that people not working is bad, but is that so?

“It could be great. We’d have more leisure. There’s certainly a challenge in making sure people have something to occupy their time and feel productive and useful, but I think those problems can be solved and it could result in a kind of utopia eventually. I don’t think this is going to happen automatically. It’s going to take a lot of work to make that happen. These are not easy political challenges and history shows we don’t do really big things unless there’s some kind of crisis, so I tend to be a pessimistic in the short run, but more optimistic in the long run. In the long run, I believe this could be one of the best things to happen to humanity.”

Perhaps the most dystopian outcome imaginable is that machines become smarter than us and view humans as parasites to be eliminated. Is this a risk? Do we need a kill switch?

“That goes to whether someday we’re going to have true artificial intelligence. I don’t think it’s a silly concern, but I also don’t think we need to worry about it in the near term. Artificial intelligence researchers say we’re not really close to it. I think that worrying about that now is a bit of a distraction. It distracts us from the much more immediate concern, which is going to be the non-science-fiction artificial intelligence – the extrapolation of what we already have, which is going to take over more of the routine, predictable work in the economy, and that’s going to have a real impact over the next 10, 20 years. True AI and machines that can think for themselves are 30 years, maybe even 50 years into the future.”

Who is Martin Ford?

Martin Ford is the author of two books: The New York Times bestselling Rise of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of a Jobless Future (winner of the 2015 Financial Times/McKinsey Business Book of the Year Award), and The Lights in the Tunnel: Automation, Accelerating Technology and the Economy of the Future. Founder of a Silicon Valley-based software development company, Ford has over 25 years’ experience in computer design and software development. He holds a computer engineering degree from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, and a graduate business degree from the University of California, Los Angeles. Ford is a regular keynote speaker on robotics and artificial intelligence, and what these advances mean for the economy, job market and society of the future.

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