This conversation took place in July 2017 with Martin Ford, NY Times best-selling author of “The Rise Of The Robots”, keynote speaker, futurist, software developer/entrepreneur.

Clips from the interview


The AI Future

“What do you think is on the horizon with AI in the future?”

Martin Ford: “My central argument is that artificial intelligence has reached the point where it’s really going to be become a substitute for a lot of human thoughts. What we’re going to see is the automation not just of muscle power, which we’ve seen in the past, but really of brain power. Computers are quite literally beginning to think at least in a limited way. I think the central technology that’s really driving this is machine learning. It’s algorithms that can look at data and based on it can learn. This technology is finally beginning to compete with our core competence, the thing that really sets people apart right. You might ask, ‘Well we’ve had all this technological progress for you know centuries since the Industrial Revolution, why aren’t we already unemployed?’ I think the answer is that we have this ability to think, to adapt, to learn, to do new things. That’s what so far has allowed us to stay ahead of technology, but now the technology is beginning to compete directly in that area, directly with that thing that really sets us apart. I think that is quite different, and that’s the thing I think is going to be quite disruptive in the coming decades. So my expectation is that maybe within the next 10 to 15 to 20 years, we are going to see a big disruption. A lot of jobs are going to disappear, and it’s going to be a lot of jobs that we generally don’t normally associate with the idea of robots or automation. It’s going to be skilled jobs, white-collar jobs, done by people with university degrees. It might be doctors, radiologists, lawyers, and journalists and people like that. As well as of course all the more less skilled jobs as well, things like driving vehicles. I anticipate that this is going to be a big disruption. There are certainly people that disagree with that, people that think this time is not different, that it’s the same old story again and again. I would argue that so far we’ve always been able to adapt to technology, but there’s no economic law that says that will always be true. At some point technology could reach the point where it’s really going to begin to displace us on a very broad basis, and I think we’re getting very very close to that point.”

Counter Arguments

“What are counter arguments that critics often use against this?”

Martin Ford: “The most important argument that people who are critical of this whole idea will make is that there is a lot of historical evidence to suggest that people always adapt. The classic example you can look at is the mechanization of agriculture. It used to be that most people worked on farms. Now in the United States and in other advanced countries this may be one or two percent of our workforce that is working in agriculture. Millions and millions of jobs were lost and people did move on to other things. They moved to manufacturing, and then later on, manufacturing was also automated to a significant extent or offshored to places like China. Now everyone works in the service sector. People who are skeptical will certainly point to that. They say ‘It’s always worked out in the past, and it’s just going to work out again in the same way.’ My argument against that is that we’re running out of new sectors that can absorb people. Right now most people work in the service sector but that’s also going to automate. Technology is coming for that sector and then where people are going to go? I think it’s also about the nature of the work. Most people still do things that are relatively routine, repetitive, and predictable. Most people come to work and they do the same kinds of things again and again. All that kind of work is going to disappear.”

The Perfect Storm

“You also wrote about a perfect storm that may happen. What is this exactly?”

Martin Ford: “I worry about a perfect storm because the technological disruption that I’m thinking about here is going to unfold over the next few decades. Of course, other things are going on as well. We have climate change happening, in Europe you’ve got an enormous problem with migration. Now these are things that are happening all at once, and the problem is that they’re going to interact and impact each other and maybe even make each other worse. As people are fearful of losing their jobs and becoming unemployed they’re going to be a lot less focused on things like climate change. They’re going to be culturally more conservative so they’re going to be more opposed to migration than they might normally be. All these things we lay together are going to evolve into bigger problems. I think it’s very important to take a holistic view. Realize that if you’re worried for example about climate change, you should also be worried about inequality, and you should also be worried about the fact that technology over the next couple of decades could really reduce economic security for a lot of people. When that happens those people are no longer going to be on your side and willing to fight to do something about climate change because they’re going to be focused on their immediate problems. It’s really important to consider all of these things together and how they potentially could interact.”

Climate Change vs. The Rise of the Robots

Martin Ford: “I look at what happened with climate change as kind of a preview of what is likely to happen with this economic and technological issue. It’s a bit scary because with climate change, you’ve got a very broad consensus. Almost all the scientists are in full agreement about what’s going on with climate change, even given that we haven’t really been able to do much. With technological disruption and job displacement we don’t have that consensus, there is still a debate going on. I’m on one side of it and there are many other people who feel differently, so clearly we’re not even as far along in terms of reaching that broad consensus that would allow us to take action. There are good reasons to worry a little bit that we’re not going to be able to move quickly enough to keep up with the pace of disruption as it occurs.”

Business-As-Usual Scenario

“What if we just continue with a business-as-usual scenario?”

Martin Ford: “I think if we just continue, the best we can hope for is that things just become more unequal, that wages continue to stagnate here in the United States and in other countries. Many people feel they’re being left behind and of course that will lead to political disruption. We’ve already seen this. We’ve got a president that many people didn’t expect to have, we had Brexit. These are both things that to some extent have been driven by this technological progress and by the fact that a lot of people feel they’re left out, they’re left behind, they’re not better off than they used to be. And they’re right. Wages have been stagnant, and that gets worse. We’re going to see more disruption and that’s the best-case scenario. The worst-case scenario of course is that we really end up with with mass unemployment, with lots and lots of people literally without jobs. I’m not going to say with any certainty that I think that will happen, but it’s definitely possible. It’s a possibility that we need to take seriously. Perhaps the likelihood is that it’s going to turn out somewhere in between those extremes. We may well end up with significant levels of unemployment at least in some areas and some groups of people, even as overall inequality continues to increase.”

The Future, Today

“Isn’t this vision of the future happening already?”

Martin Ford: “Yes, already it is happening. It’s playing out in terms of disruptions and political upheaval that we’re seeing already that I think will get worse and that’s something to really worry about.”

“Don’t Be Bored (In Your Job)”

“What can individuals do in light of these scenarios?”

Martin Ford: “There are two things. In terms of positioning yourself to be relatively safe from all of this, the best things you can do is avoid doing something that is routine and repetitive and predictable. You don’t want to be coming to work and doing the same kinds of things again and again. If you’ve got a job that you feel is boring then that’s probably a warning. What you’re doing could very well be threatened. The best things to be doing are things that involve genuine creativity where you’re coming up with new ideas, building new things that really involve lots of deep interaction with other people. [Jobs] where you’re building relationships, maybe forms of empathy, like a nurse or a doctor might have. Or [jobs] in the business world, really working with clients and building those strong relationships. The third area that seems to be relatively safe are skilled trade-type jobs that really require a lot of mobility and dexterity and unpredictable environments. Things like electricians, plumbers, these kinds of things. It’s going to be really hard to build a robot in the foreseeable future that’s going to do this type of work. If you’re doing something that’s very unpredictable and non-routine and requires some level of skills that’s going to be relatively safe in terms of the next few decades. Once we go beyond that there’s really nothing that you can say is completely safe. In my book “”The Rise Of The Robots””, I give examples. There are already algorithms that are exhibiting some level of creativity. There are computer programs that have written original symphonies and do electronic design work and paint original works of art and things like this. Computer creativity is something that’s already happening. It’s obviously going to get better, and it’s not impossible that twenty years from now the most creative ‘brain’ on the planet might be a machine and not a not a human being.”

Potential Utopia

“In light of all the downside, isn’t it also possible that the future is actually much better than today?”

Martin Ford: “I mean there is a very utopian way that you can imagine all this playing out. It’s true, we might work less or at least work less at things we don’t like, things that are boring or dangerous or dirty. We won’t have to do those things. We’ll have more time for leisure to do things that are really important to us, like more time with our families and so forth. That’s all great. In fact, that’s a vision that John Maynard Keynes, the famous economist, had all the way back in 1930. He wrote an essay entitled ‘Economic Possibilities For Our Grandchildren’. He was thinking a hundred years in the future and imagined a world where people might work only 15 hours a week, and the rest of the time, we would do whatever we felt was rewarding. That vision is a great one, it’s something that we should sort of strive for. The reality is that happens only if we take explicit action. If we just let things play out we don’t seem to arrive at that point. The reason is that things will become too unequal and people will be left behind. Rather than everyone working 15 hours a week and having a good life, we’ll have a few people that do extremely well and everyone else is kind of left behind. That’s one of the reasons why I’ve argued for policies like a basic income that would make sure we include everyone in this positive story, this utopian story. Ultimately, a policy like a guaranteed income is going to be up to government. You’ve got to have some kind of a central authority to manage that and to distribute the income and to levy the taxes that are going to be required to pay for it. I really don’t think this is a problem that can be solved by the market or just by the private sector. Definitely there’s a role for people in the private sector, but a big part of that role is going to be supporting policies that will lead to a positive outcome here.”

Taking Action

Martin Ford: “The most important thing that an individual can do is really understand how dynamic the future is going to be and position themselves for a lifelong learning process. If you ask what should your kids learn, I would say your kids should learn to learn. They should embrace that idea that throughout my entire life I’m never going to stop learning. For a child the most important thing is to learn to love that. They’re going to have to do it so they better learn to enjoy it. And that’s true for those of us that are older, too. It’s going to mean embracing that attitude. That’s the most important thing we can do as individuals and also try to move into areas that are more creative or involve more interaction with people, so that we can protect ourselves from this big trend that’s going to be coming at us in terms of more routine things being automated. The second thing that’s critically important is having an open mind about what this means for society. It’s great to talk about what I could do for my kids and so forth, but these trends are going to be so powerful that some people are are going to be left behind. That’s going to be a problem. We need to have policies to deal with that. That means being open-minded about possibilities like a guaranteed income things that are admittedly radical. They’re not things that are conventional, they’re not things that have been tried before, they’re not things that are normal, they’re things that people really have a objection to in many cases. I think that’s what it’s going to take. We’re going to have to do things that haven’t been done before and it’s really important that people have an open mind about that.”

“The Economy Needs Consumers”

Martin Ford: “This does impact everyone at every level because the economy needs consumers. It’s not just about certain people not having a job or an income and those people… well too bad for them. Those people are not going to be buying anything and when that becomes a lot of people, maybe half of all people, then that’s a huge problem for the economy. A market economy, capitalism, depends on consumers. It depends on people that have got the income and the confidence to buy the products and services being produced. Businesses have got to have customers. Ultimately, no matter how wealthy you are or how successful you are, you’re selling something to someone else. There have to be people out there to buy that and if they aren’t, we’re going to run into a big problem. The reason I emphasize that is that I want everyone to feel that they’ve got a vested interest in this. This is something that will impact everyone, not not just in terms of the disruption to society. Even if you build a fence around your house and be safe somehow from everything that’s happening, the economic tornado is potentially going to come. It will impact you. Everyone has a vested interest in making sure that we adapt to this and solve these problems.”

The Writing On The Wall

Martin Ford: “I was just in Washington DC two days ago, talking to some people from the House of Representatives about this. They’re very interested, so even politicians are beginning to see the writing on the wall. They are beginning to become quite interested in what exactly we’re going to do about this and that it’s a problem for everyone. It’s a conversation that we need to take to a much higher level.”