Episode 132 - Robots Rising
Published December 23, 2014
SPECIAL GUEST: Martin Ford. The onward march of technology is showing signs that the future of work may be dominated by robots, rather than ordinary human workers. What will this mean for the future of the human race? Author Martin Ford has tackled these questions in his books, The Lights In The Tunnel (2009) and Rise Of Robots (coming in May 2015). On this episode, he joins us to talk about some of the issues involved in the increasing automation and mechanization of the work previously done by human beings. Are we looking at a future without enough work for the ever-increasing human population? Join us and find out. Recorded 12/18/2014.
You can download the episode here.
Mike & Matt's Recommended Reading:
Biography for Martin Ford
Martin Ford's website for The Lights In The Tunnel
Read The Lights In The Tunnel in PDF format
Read Martin Ford on the Huffington Post
Accelerating Technology and the Economy (talk by Martin)
Alpha: Welcome to another episode of Robot Overlordz, episode #132. On the show, we take a look at how society is changing, everything from pop culture reviews to political commentary, technology trends to social norms, all in under 30 minutes, every Tuesday and Thursday.
Mike Johnston: I’m Mike Johnston.
Matt Bolton: And I’m Matt Bolton.
MJ: And joining us tonight is Martin Ford, a Silicon Valley entrepreneur and author. Martin, thanks for joining us.
Martin Ford: Thank you.
MJ: I guess to start off, can you tell us a little bit about your background?
MF: Well, I’ve been working in software development for quite a while in Silicon Valley, I run my own small business. About five or six years ago, I became very interested in the impact technology is having on the workforce. That happened partly because I saw what happened in my own small business. When I started out developing software, we actually shipped software on physical media, on CDs, and there were printed manuals and that sort of thing. So, there were actually quite a lot of jobs for average people to be involved in that process. But, of course, software now is delivered almost purely over the internet, it’s just a download, so all of those roles are now gone. It occurred to me that what was happening in software is probably kind of a precursor for what we are going to see with the general economy, and I think that’s sort of the way it’s working out. So, I became interested in it and wrote a book, my first book, The Lights in the Tunnel, about it and since then I’ve really been focused on that issue.
MJ: Yeah, like I said, I just finished Lights in the Tunnel, which I thought was amazing, by the way. Obviously, it’s been a couple of years now--I think that came out in 2009, right?
MF: 2009, so it’s been about five years now.
MJ: How has your view of how that technology is affecting things changed since you wrote Lights in the Tunnel?
MF: Well, I think that most of what I said was more or less on target. It’s progressing in the direction that I kind of expected. If anything, I think I’ve kind of been surprised by some of the advances that we’ve seen. Actually, when I wrote that book in 2009, for example, I talked about the possibility that we might someday have self-driving cars, and I talked about how the auto manufacturers were working with collision avoidance systems and I suggested that maybe eventually those would evolve to the point where we’d have cars that could drive themselves. Yet, it was less than a year after the book was published that Google demonstrated its self-driving car. So, the technology, in some ways, is actually moving even faster. IBM Watson is another example of something that I really didn’t anticipate seeing as soon as I did. So, I think that we’re clearly on that trend.
MJ: One of the things that jumped out to me about Lights in the Tunnel, your book, was how you talked about the way that the economics field really hasn’t latched on to some of these trends so much, that they seem pretty much to be predicting that things will just continue on the way that they have in the past. Do you think that’s changed at all? Matt and I talked back in March about an article in Forbes that actually talked about some of this stuff.
MF: Yeah, I think that there are definitely economists that are getting clued into this. It’s still not really a mainstream topic and it’s certainly not something that you hear policymakers, or politicians, or the people that really have power to make change talking about. But there are definitely economists out there that are now actually talking about this, which is a big change from when I wrote the book. At that time, there was really nothing. It just wasn’t on the radar at all. But even very prominent economists, like Paul Krugman for example, have at least written blog posts about this issue, wondering where it’s all going to lead. So, at least I do give the economists credit for starting to look at this. But still we have a long way to go before I think we really face up to the implications of this and begin to deal with it.
MJ: You’ve got another book coming out in May, Rise of the Robots, right?
MF: That’s right, Rise of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of a Jobless Future is the complete title, and it will be shipping on May 5th.
MJ: What’s different between the two really?
MF: The second book is longer and more detailed. It’s obviously more up to date but it also has a much more comprehensive coverage of the technology; it gives lots and lots of real world examples in there, showing how this is really unfolding in lots of different areas. There are chapters focused on different industries. For example, there’s a chapter on health care, there’s another on higher education, there’s sections talking specifically about self-driving cars and 3D printing and things like that. So, it’s pretty comprehensive in terms of looking at the technologies and how they’re likely to impact people in different areas of the economy. Then it also goes on to talk about potential solutions, and how we might know what we might do about this, and it brings in some historical background there to try to flesh that out. So, I think it will be a book that will be quite timely, given that this issue is receiving a lot of attention. I hope that it will really raise the level of the conversation and get people really thinking and talking about this so that we can begin to get on the path so that we can actually face up to this and figure out what we should do about it.
MB: It’s very interesting to me because Mike and I have talked about this kind of stuff a lot. When you think about it, to me--and honestly, I didn’t read your first book because I didn’t have time before the interview--but I’ve read two articles that you had in the Huffington Post that I went through, and I found those very informative. Where do you think humans, especially with your new book, are even going to fit in in this entire scenario? I don’t want it to sound like a dumb question, but you see all these jobs that are going to be done by robots or by electronic devices or whatever--even McDonalds is toying with the idea of having automated help and even hamburger makers and things. What are humans going to do at that point?
MF: Well, I think we’re a long way from really eliminating everyone, there will be jobs and there will be rules. But more and more people are going to be disenfranchised, they’re not going to have a role because, first of all, I think there will be fewer jobs and, secondly, the jobs that do exist will probably require more and more in terms of both skills and education and capabilities. There are some people that assume that that will be okay, we’ll just keep retraining everyone and giving everyone more education, but if you follow that course long enough you end up in a situation where everyone has to be a rocket scientist. Obviously that’s not realistic for a number of reasons in terms of where the people can actually manage that. Secondly, there’s no reason to expect that there would be enough of those jobs anyway, even if we could send everyone back to school and equip for that kind of role. So, we’re going to have to deal with the fact that a lot of people are not going to have a role in the economy. That’s going to be the first major challenge and I think we’re going to have to figure out something perhaps like a basic income, a guaranteed income, to offer support to people while also addressing the issue of how people are going to spend their time and be productive and so forth. Those are the main challenges that loom, I think.
MB: You look at a lot of developed countries now, population growth is starting to slow down. Do you think that technology has anything to do with that, mainly because people are looking into the future and seeing that the job market is bad and things like that? Do you think that’s actually affecting that, or will it?
MF: I don’t know that it’s specifically that people are looking at the technology issue, but definitely we have a real problem with inequality and, more importantly, for most people incomes have become stagnant. So, the reality is that most average people in developed countries are not really doing very well. They’re not making progress, and of course that ties into their decision to have kids. Together with the fact that it’s become so extraordinarily expensive now, especially because of the need for education. Now basically everyone understands that if you want a shot at the middle class in today’s economy you’ve got to go to college. So, that means that it’s become a lot more expensive to rear children, so in developed countries people look at that and it looks pretty daunting in terms of having a large family. That’s probably part of what’s going on there. But yeah, it’s definitely having an impact in terms of developed countries.
MJ: In terms of that impact we’re feeling now, do you see the current unemployment numbers and even the underemployment as a symptom of this change?
MF: I think in part. I mean it’s hard to measure what portion of it is still cyclical because of carryover from the great recession, what is a real structural change in terms of the economy simply not demanding as much work. I think that both components are there. I don’t think there’s any question at all that the nature of the economy is changing and that there is less demand for labor than there used to be. Even though economists wouldn’t buy into this argument of technology are pretty widely acknowledging that we’re looking at a new normal where the natural rate of unemployment is going to be higher than it used to be. So, I think that’s clearly happening. But, of course, all of this is not just about literally unemployment either. It’s also about stagnant wages. It’s also about the fact that there are more people competing for jobs and that’s holding down wages and incomes and so forth, and contributing to inequality and so forth. So, this kind of manifests in lots of ways that you can see in the economy. Of course, it also ties in with a lot of other things like globalization and like the change in our political system and so forth.
MJ: I thought one of the great things you did in Lights in the Tunnel was that you had a number of metaphors, not least of which was the lights in the tunnel metaphor. But one of the ones that really spoke to me when I was reading it was the river and the employers that build their factories on the side of the riverbank, and they pull the water out to make things and they put water back in the river, so to speak, with the wages they pay out to people and things like that, and that some of the newer businesses where they don’t need as many workers and things like that are actually pulling water out of the river faster than it is being replenished. I thought that was actually a phenomenal analogy for a lot of the problems that seem to be out there right now in kind of the capitalist system, so to speak. Do you think somewhat that our conception of how it has worked previously is maybe getting in the way of seeing some of those things, of how it’s changing?
MF: Yeah, definitely. I think we’re hitting an inflection point where things are really changing. Of course, the historical norm has been that machine has been tools and they have increased the productivity of workers, and as the productivity of workers increased, especially during the couple of decades after WWII, productivity went up and their wages also went up because they were more valuable, they were able to command higher wages. But now we’ve reached this point where it’s almost gone too far. Now machines are getting so capable that they’re beginning to substitute for people rather than enhance people or compliment people. So, we’re seeing the opposite effect--we’re seeing actually that productivity continues to go up but it’s completely decoupled from wages. Incomes no longer follow that uptrend; incomes are stagnant while productivity keeps going up, and so all the fruits of innovation are really being captured by business owners and not by workers. What that means is that most of the people out there really don’t have a sufficient income. Their income really isn’t keeping up with the cost of living and so forth. As a result of that, they can’t be effective consumers. So yeah, the analogy that you were talking about and what I’m trying to get across here is that in the future I think we will need to view the consumer economy as a renewable resource, just as we might think about a natural resource, like fish in the ocean or in a lake or something--it’s something that actually needs to be replenished. The way we replenish it is by getting income or purchasing power into the hands of all those average consumers. You can’t solve the problem by just getting tons of income into the hands of Warren Buffett and Bill Gates because they can’t spend enough. One extraordinarily rich person is not going to go out and buy a thousand cars or a thousand smart phones, or eat in a thousand restaurants every night. There’s no way that one person, or a small number of people, no matter how rich they are, can do the job that thousands and thousands of average people do in terms of consumption and really providing demand for the economy and that’s, I think, one of the fundamental challenges that we’re going to face in the future if we keep on this path that we’re on.
MB: Do you think that with technology, there’s only so far it can go to replace jobs? The only reason I’m asking that is because if I open up a factory making widgets and I automate the entire factory, and I can build the entire thing with robots and technology and I don’t need a single worker, at some point there’s going to be a point where there’s not going to be any consumers because nobody is going to be working to buy my widgets. Do you think there’s a point where technology just can’t…?
MF: Yeah, that’s sort of a point I’m making in the book, that it could be kind of self-limiting. At some point, you undermine the whole economy to the extent that there might no longer really be an economic incentive for innovation. Nowadays, everyone talks about Steve Jobs and holds him up as an example. But the reality is that in order to do what he did, there had to be a market out there, there had to be a huge number of people who wanted the devices that Apple builds and also had the income to purchase those devices. If, in the future, we get into a situation where there are fewer and fewer of those people out there, a company like Apple is not going to make that investment. I mean, it’s an enormous investment to develop those products. So, it’s a real problem in terms of keeping the whole economy going and also in terms of providing that necessary incentive that really keeps us on the path towards more progress.
MB: Do you see a field where--because if I sit and I think, then literally for almost any job I can come up with a scenario where, given enough time and technology, a machine or some kind of technology could take over. Do you see, other than the robot designers and makers, is there anywhere where the jobs of the future are going to be in one specific place or is it going to be mainly those types of jobs--robot designers and that type of thing?
MF: For the foreseeable future, I think there are still going to be a lot of jobs in lots of areas--people that are doing more creative, non-routine things, people that are doing things that require a genuine human touch or element to it. If you go far enough into the future and you assume that someday we’re going to have strong artificial intelligence or human-level artificial intelligence then, yeah, at that point it’s hard to know what jobs would really be available for people. If some day you had machines that are smarter than anyone basically, smarter than Einstein, maybe a thousand times smarter than Einstein, then at that point it’s hard to see what jobs there would really be for people at all. But that’s pretty far off. That’s very speculative, so.
MB: Right. I didn’t mean it as “Tomorrow we’re all going to wake up and…” But in the future, for somebody who’s having kids right now, I think it’s a very real possibility that their children could be affected by this quite a bit.
MF: Right, absolutely. For young kids today, if you believe, for example, things like Ray Kurzweil said, that we’re looking at real machine intelligence by 2030 or something like that, and obviously if you’ve got young kids today, they’re going right into that. So, again, at this point I think it’s impossible to answer that question. Maybe that’s a hundred years out, but it’s definitely an issue to keep in mind.
MJ: Martin, you mentioned the inequality issue if some of this stuff keeps on track. Does that possibility of a society divided, like the Matt Damon film, Elysium, for example, where you have the rich in a paradise environment and everybody else is just kind of stuck with the leavings and really just bare menial jobs. For your average person, that scenario obviously sounds pretty nightmarish. Is there anything that they can kind of do to help direct this kind of shift into something more positive?
MF: Yeah, I think that outcome you described is one possibility--a very dystopian, almost technological feudalism, similar to what we had in the Middle Ages, where you have a tiny elite that has all the wealth and that really captures essentially all the products of society and everyone else is completely useless and doesn’t really have a role at all. I honestly think that it will require government intervention, it will require political change in order to solve this. I don’t think there’s really any way that the market itself will address this. It’s a fundamental problem with the market and it’s going to require some sort of interaction or regulation. Something like providing everyone with a guaranteed income would be the first thing I would mention. So, I think the most important thing people can do right now is to really try to bring attention to this issue so that we can start talking about it and eventually it can actually become part of our political and policy discussion.
MJ: Yeah, I think for your average person who maybe looks at our government currently and is very discouraged by the lack of basic movement sometimes, I would think that getting discouraged is exactly the way to bring about that kind of Elysium scenario, to not participate, and as much as it’s hard to get things moving, to start talking about these ideas and to actually make sure that people are informed and thinking in this way. I know in Lights in the Tunnel, you mentioned a couple ways that sort of our standard political thinking may run into some fundamental issues with their current assumptions about how things might work.
MF: Yeah, it’s a tremendous challenge politically Especially if you look at what’s been happening in the country, if you look at the tea party, that basically they hate government in all ways and want to eliminate it, and yet I honestly believe we’re moving into an era where it’s unavoidable that we’re going to need a bigger role for government, or at least a new role for government. We’re going to have to call on the government to do things that it hasn’t done in the past in order to solve this problem. And yet the political environment and such--a lot of people want to move in the other direction and just shut that down entirely and I think that it’s going to be a real challenge to get people to understand what’s really happening here.
MJ: So Martin, Rise of the Robots comes out in May, correct?
MF: Yeah, May 5th is the release date.
MJ: Well, thanks very much for taking the time to talk to us.
MB: Yeah, thank you very much.
MF: Thank you.
MJ: Once again, it’s Lights in the Tunnel and Rise of the Robots. So, definitely check them out. Thanks a lot Martin.
A: That’s all for this episode of Robot Overlordz. You can find our show notes, including links from this episode, on our website at RobotOverlordz.FM. That’s it for this radio broadcasting. We would love to hear your thoughts on this episode in our forum, or you can review us on iTunes. We’re Robot Overlordz with a Z.
MJ: Thanks everyone for listening.