How Robots and Computer Algorithms are Challenging Jobs and the Economy

A Silicon Valley entrepreneur named Martin Ford (@MFordFuture) has written a very timely new book entitled Rise of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of a Jobless Future (Basic Books, 2015), which is currently receiving much attention in the media. The depth and significance of the critical issues it raises is responsible for this wide-beam spotlight.*

On May 27, 2015 the author was interviewed on The Brian Lehrer Show on radio station WNYC in New York. The result is available as a truly captivating 30-minute podcast entitled When Will Robots Take Your Job?. I highly recommend listening to this in its entirety. I will sum up, annotate and add some questions of mine own to this.

The show’s host, Brian Lehrer, expertly guided Mr. Ford through the key complexities and subtleties of the thesis of his provocative new book. First, for now and increasingly in the future, robots and AI algorithms are taking on increasingly difficult task that are displacing human workers. Especially for those jobs that involve more repetitive and routine tasks, the more likely it will be that machines will replace human workers. This will not occur in just one sector, but rather, “across the board” in all areas of the marketplace. For example, IBM’s Watson technology can be accessed using natural language which, in the future, might result in humans no longer being able to recognize its responses as coming from a machine.

Mr. Ford believes we are moving towards an economic model where productivity is increasing but jobs and income are decreasing. He asserts that solving this dilemma will be critical. Consequently, his second key point was the challenge of detaching work from income. He is proposing the establishment of some form of system where income is guaranteed. He believes this would still support Capitalism and would “produce plenty of income that could be taxed”. No nation is yet moving in this direction, but he thinks that Europe might be more amenable to it in the future.

He further believes that the US will be most vulnerable to displacement of workers because it leads the world in the use of technology but “has no safety net” for those who will be put out by this phenomenon. (For a more positive perspective on this, see the December 27, 2014 Subway Fold post entitled Three New Perspectives on Whether Artificial Intelligence Threatens or Benefits the World.)

Brian Lehrer asked his listeners to go to a specific page on the site of the regular podcast called Planet Money on National Public Radio. (“NPR” is the network of publicly supported radio stations that includes WNYC). This page entitled Will Your Job be Done by a Machine? displays a searchable database of job titles and the corresponding chance that each will be replaced by automation. Some examples that were discussed included:

  • Real estate agents with a 86.4% chance
  • Financial services workers with a 23% chance
  • Software developers with a 12.8% chance

Then the following six listeners called in to speak with Mr. Ford:

  • Caller 1 asked about finding a better way to get income to the population beyond the job market. This was squarely on point with Mr. Ford’s first main point about decoupling income and jobs. He was not advocating for somehow trying to stop technological progress. However, he reiterated how machines are “becoming autonomous workers, no longer just tools”.
  • Caller 2 asked whether Mr. Ford had seen a YouTube video entitled Humans Need Not Apply. Mr. Ford had seen it and recommended it. The caller said that the most common reply to this video (which tracks very closely with many of Mr. Ford’s themes), he has heard was, wrongly in his opinion, that “People will do something else”. Mr. Ford replied that people must find other things that they can get paid to do. The caller also said that machine had made it much easier and more economical for his to compose and record his own music.
  • Caller 3 raised the topic of automation in the medical profession. Specifically, whether IBM’s Watson could one day soon replace doctors. Mr. Ford believes that Watson will have an increasing effect here, particularly in fields such as radiology. However, it will have a lesser impact in those specialties where doctors and patients need to interact more with each other. (See also these three recent Subway Fold posts on the applications of Watson to TED Talks, business apps and the legal profession.)
  • Caller 4 posited that only humans can conceive ideas and be original. He asked about how can computers identify patterns for which they have not been programmed. He cited the example of the accidental discovery of penicillin. Mr. Ford replied that machines will not replace scientists but they can replace service workers. Therefore, he is “more worried about the average person”. Brian Lehrer then asked him about driverless cars and, perhaps, even driverless Uber cabs one day. Mr. answered that although expectations were high that this will eventually happen. He is concerned that taxi drivers will lose jobs. (See this September 15, 2014 Subway Fold post on Uber and the “sharing economy”.) Which led to …
  • Caller 5 who is currently a taxi driver in New York. They discussed how, in particular, many types of drivers who drive for commerce are facing this possibility. Brian Lehrer followed-up by asking whether this may somehow lead to the end of Capitalism. Mr. Ford that Capitalism “can continue to work” but it must somehow “adapt to new laws and circumstances”.
  • Caller 6 inquired whether one of the proposals raised in VR pioneer Jaron Lanier’s book entitled Who Owns the Future (Simon & Schuster, 2013), whereby people could perhaps be paid for the information they provide online. This might be a possible means to financially assist people in the future. Mr. Ford’s response was that while it was “an interesting idea” it would be “difficult to implement”. As well, he believes that Google would resist this. He made a further distinction between his concept of guaranteed income and Lanier’s proposal insofar he believes that “Capitalism can adapt” more readily to his concept. (I also highly recommend Lanier’s book for its originality and deep insights.)

Brian Lehrer concluded by raising the prospect of self-aware machines. He noted that Bill Gates and Stephen Hawking had recently warned about this possibility. Mr. Ford responded that “we are too far from this now”. For him, today’s concern is on automation’s threat to jobs, many of which are becoming easier to reduce to a program.

To say the very least, to my own organic and non-programmatic way of thinking, this was an absolutely mind-boggling discussion. I greatly look forward to this topic will continue to gather momentum and expanded media coverage.

My own questions include:

  • How should people at the beginning, middle and end of their careers be advised and educated to adapt to these rapid changes so that they can not only survive, but rather, thrive within them?
  • What role should employers, employees, educators and the government take, in any and all fields, to keep the workforce up-to-date in the competencies they will need to continue to be valuable contributors?
  • Are the challenges of automation most efficiently met on the global, national and/or local levels by all interested contingencies working together? What forms should their cooperation take?

*For two additional book reviews I recommend reading ‘Rise of the Robots’ and ‘Shadow Work’ by Barbara Ehrenreich in the May 11, 2015 edition of The New York Times, and Soon They’ll Be Driving It, Too by Sumit Paul-Choudhury in the May 15, 2015 edition of The Wall Street Journal (subscription required).

Editor’s Note – reprinted with the permission of the author – first published on his blog – The Subway Fold.

Posted in: Technology Trends
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