Will the Rise of The Robots Implode the World Economy?

On the other hand, they can land planes, write news stories, and emotional robots may be your very best friend or your loyal pet.

From the invention of the steam engine to the Internet, technology has helped drive human progress. But Martin Ford, author of Rise Of The Robots: Technology and The Threat Of A Jobless Future, suggests we are now at a tipping point where robotics, if not handled right, may trigger mass unemployment and economic collapse.

Talking from his office in Sunnyvale, California, he explains how 3-D printing may revolutionize the construction industry; why the Japanese like having robots as pets; and how robots may make it even harder to halt climate change.

Earlier this year, Stephen Hawking said that “artificial intelligence could spell the end of the human race.” Surely, this is sci-fi?

I’d agree, that’s definitely science fiction. Some very smart, high profile people like Stephen Hawking and Elon Musk  have warned about this. In the very long term they may have a point. But, based on what I know from talking to people who are actually working in artificial intelligence (AI), we are not anywhere close to that.

An Oxford University survey suggested that 47 per cent of the world’s jobs will be taken by robots in the coming decades. What’s involved and which jobs are most at risk?

This is a big issue that is not science fiction and is happening already. It involves what we call narrow artificial intelligence, which can do relatively routine, predictable things. By predictable, I mean you can predict what a person doing a job is going to be doing based on that they’ve done in the past.

Like flipping burgers?

It could be flipping burgers or a lot of factory and warehouse jobs like stocking shelves. One of the most dramatic impacts isn’t going to involve actual robots. It’s going to involve software. Some of the people most threatened are what we might call office drones: people who sit in front of computers doing relatively routine, formulaic things. If your job is to produce the same kinds of reports again and again, software is getting smarter and better at doing that. We already have lots of examples, even in journalism. There’s smart software that is able to write basic news stories. Lots of white-collar jobs held by college graduates are going to be threatened.

What will the effect on the world economy be?

In the long run, it could have a dramatic impact and I think we are already beginning to see that. As you eliminate workers and people become unemployed or their wages fall, consumers will have less purchasing power to buy the products and services produced by the economy. As a result, there will be less and less demand. Economists all over the world are talking about this issue. In Europe, for example, there are concerns about inflation because there is not enough demand for products and services. If you project this forward, there are going to be a lot of people who are either unemployed, underemployed, or struggling financially, who simply won’t have discretionary income to spend.

How does your work in Silicon Valley inform your writing about robots. Was there an ‘Aha’ moment?

I got my start here in the early 1990s, when I founded a small software company in my home. This was the era when Microsoft Windows was just becoming important. Software was a pretty labor-intensive business to run. We would ship our software on CD ROMs, with a printed manual. All of that had to be manufactured and then physically shipped to the customer. As my business grew, I ended up outsourcing that to another little company in Berkeley, California, which hired people from different backgrounds. But within a few years, that company went out of business. Now, software is either shipped directly over the Internet or it’s hosted in the cloud. It had a dramatic impact on small businesses in terms of jobs. And that’s what started me thinking about this issue.

Off-shoring jobs to China and other places has been going on for decades. How will it potentially connect with artificial intelligence?

Off-shoring is the intersection of globalization and technology. What we’re seeing now is that as automation gets better, a lot of jobs that were once off-shored to low wage countries, especially in areas of repetitive customer service, are being replaced by things like digital voice systems.

As a result, a lot of those jobs may evaporate in the Third World. Countries like India will also try to climb up the skills ladder and go after much higher value type professional jobs. You could take a young, relatively inexperienced, but very smart worker in India or China and combine them with these very powerful artificial intelligence-enabled tools; and together they would be able to compete with a much more experienced worker in the US.

Qualities like judgement and experience, which we associate with people, are more and more being encapsulated into artificial intelligence and algorithmic approaches. In many cases, they’re doing it better [than humans].

The movie, Her, with Scarlett Johanssen imagined a future where we even have emotional relationships with AI companions. Is that possible?

Absolutely. There’s already research into building emotional robots and many people predict that companion robots and robots that provide sex and things like that are not too far in the future. There already have been isolated cases, typically in Japan, where people have developed very close relationships with robots. Many people here see robots as threatening, as in the Terminator movies. In Japan, robots are perceived much more positively. They’re much more likely, for example, to be used as pets.

A neuroscientist I interviewed for Book Talk told me that, for the foreseeable future, AI would be good for “cleaning toilets”, but not much else. Is he wrong?

I think he’s got it backwards. To build a robot that can clean toilets or do the things a housekeeper might do is a tremendous technical challenge. To build a software system that can automate a job held by someone with a college degree is much easier. Robots can already do all kinds of remarkable things, like land airplanes or trade on Wall Street. It’s certainly way beyond cleaning toilets.

3-D printers can now create human organs. In what other fields may they reshape the future?

3-D printing is primarily applicable in areas where you want customization. One of the areas that has dramatic potential to be transformative is in construction, when you take the idea of a 3-D venture and scale it up so it becomes this huge, construction-level machine. That would enable us to very rapidly construct houses and other buildings in an almost completely automated fashion. It would also potentially threaten millions of construction jobs.

Surely, total automation is a good thing; Karl Marx said, people will have more free time, which will “redound to the benefit of emancipated labor.” He’s right, isn’t he?

There are two ways this can go. The idea that robots are going to take over all the unpleasant work is pretty attractive. The problem is distributional. In the world that exists today and has always existed, jobs and incomes are coupled together. If you don’t have a job, you don’t have an income. It could be a utopian outcome if you had an income independently from a job. You wouldn’t have to work at something you didn’t enjoy, but you would still have income to participate in the economy and help drive economic growth and all those things that we need people to do.

Unfortunately, that’s not the world we live in today. Right now if you don’t have a job and you don’t have an income, you’ll soon be homeless and living on the street, at least in the U.S. where our social safety net is not at the level of other industrialized countries. That’s the real problem. How do we decouple work from income? I think that’s ultimately what we are going to have to. It’s very simple to say that. But, politically, it’s extraordinarily difficult to make that happen.

A guaranteed income for all citizens, regardless of whether they work, sounds like universal, socialist welfare, doesn’t it?

It will sound like that to a lot of people. But, if you look at the history of that idea, a guaranteed income was supported by some iconic figures on the conservative side, like Frederick Hayek. True socialism means the government taking over the means of production and nationalizing businesses. That’s one path we can take, but I think it would be a very bad outcome. The alternative is a more free market approach, which would give everyone a minimal income so that they have the means to go out in the market and participate. If they need housing, they’ll go and look for housing in the private market and they’ll have the money to spend on it.

How does the rise of robots connect with other challenges we face, like climate change?

Climate change is a huge challenge and politically we’re having a difficult time solving it. A lot of people don’t believe in it or give it priority, because they’re more concerned with economic issues. When people are worried about paying their rent or putting food on the table, it’s hard for them to focus on something that’s going to impact them decades from now. This is especially true in poor countries. People in those countries are the ones that are going to suffer the most from climate change, but they don’t have the ability to worry about it because they’re focused on surviving economically.

The trend toward automation will make people even more economically insecure, which will in turn make it harder, politically, to make anything happen on climate change. Industries opposed to policies that could address climate change will just say, “If you do this we’re going to lose even more jobs.” And that’s going to kill it. These two things are going to unfold roughly in parallel and they could create a perfect storm where increased unemployment and the impact from automation will make it even harder to address climate change.

Are you an optimist or a pessimist about the future?

In the near term, I’m a pessimist. In the long term, an optimist. I’m a strong believer in technology. My whole career has been in technology. So, I’m definitely not someone who wants to shut down technology or limit it in some way. I think that would be a terrible idea.

We’re dramatically better off than we were 100 years ago and that’s largely because of technology. The problem is that things are becoming less simple than they were. Technology has reached what you might call “an inflection point.” On the one hand, technology is giving us all this great stuff, like medical discoveries or free information on the Internet. At the same time, technology may take away access to the basics, like a house and food. The extreme example of that is the homeless person who has a smart phone and can go to Starbucks and access all the digital abundance that is out there but has nowhere to live.

If we can address these issues, so everyone has access to a reasonable standard of living while enjoying the fruits of technology, we could have a very optimistic, almost utopian, future. If we don’t, for lots of people who are not economically at the top, it’s going to be pretty dystopian. Many people may lose their anchor to the middle class and get into trouble in terms of the necessities of life.

Simon Worrall curates Book Talk. Follow him on Twitter or at simonworrallauthor.com.

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