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Technology replacing workers…

I was in Washington last week for an event entitled “Will Robots Steal Your Job?” sponsored by the New America Foundation and Slate Magazine.

Slate also published a series of articles on the subject by Farhad Manjoo.

There were two panel discussions. Here is the list of participants from the event page at the New America Foundation:

Panel 1 – Can Robots Do Nuance?

Robbie Allen
Founder and CEO, Automated Insights, Inc.

Dr. Sarah Kramer
Primary care physician, University of Washington Medicine

Michael Schmidt
President, Nutonian, Inc.

Slate Video: Robots on the Silver Screen

Panel 2 – Can the Economy Survive a Robot Uprising?

Dr. Tyler Cowen
Holbert C. Harris Chair of Economics, George Mason University
Co-author, Marginal Revolution blog

Martin Ford
Author, The Lights in the Tunnel: Automation, Accelerating Technology and the Economy of the Future

Michael Lind
Policy Director, Economic Growth Program
New America Foundation

A video of the discussion is here. One of the most interesting questions Farhad asked me was one that I have seen raised quite a few times:  Why do I worry that machines might outpace workers when we all know that people in the future will be enhanced by “transhumanist”  technology (brain implants, etc.)?  That’s at 1:01:20.

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  1. Ted
    October 7, 2011 at 8:45 pm | #1

    Economists keep talking about our future by pointing to our past. Martin Ford is correct; the future is fundamentally different than the past. Machine intelligence is the difference. It grows exponentially and is approaching human competency. He’s right, how can man compete with these machines? Even if human labor had skull volumes, weight carrying capacities and electric power to upgrade our brain with the same hardware, the FDA would delay such medical procedures and brain implants. You’d wait for over a decade for the approved neural implants. Wouldn’t you fall further and further behind the evolving machine labor?

  2. October 10, 2011 at 12:16 am | #2

    Martin,

    I felt bad for you watching that. The two other people they had with you simply had no idea of what is happening in technology. The thought the first panel was pretty good. I thought you did well in yours, but it got lost on people who see a long timeline. I wish you could have shown your plot about what happens with exponential growth. I still think the best way I’ve found to validate a short timeline is pointing out that automated cars will be on the road before 2020, and as you mention, this isn’t going to just be cars. We will be able to automate everything at that cognitive level around the same time.

    Every time Tyler Cowen would bring up things like personal assistants and people caring for the elderly, I wanted to smack him because that ignores all the work that is going into automating those exact tasks. The Japanese are pushing hard to be able to automate the care of the elderly, in large part because they lack sufficient youth. Virtual grocery stores and virtual assistants that exist or on the verge of release will provide a superior experience to what humans can provide simply because they can know everything about you. Google is working hard on creating that assistant. Once they do, the non-wealthy will all get their assistants and the wealthy will fire most of theirs.

    Mark

  3. October 12, 2011 at 10:07 pm | #4

    Unfortunately, two of these gentlemen have absolutely no understanding of what is happening in the world today. It is no accident that corporate profit is increasing in tandem with structural unemployment. The fastest way to improve your profit margin is to replace labor (human) with capital (machine). This has the added effect of concentrating profits in the hands of capital owners, while eliminating wasteful expenditure in the way of salaries, benefits, and pensions. If you are blind to this premise, you cannot contribute any salient points to the discussion.

    Furthermore, the talk of personal servants for all was infantile. Where would non-capital owners find the revenue streams to feed, house, and obtain healthcare, let alone employ servants? Why would owners of automated healthcare, agriculture and housing companies give away their services for free?

    Martin, this reinforces the need for this blog, and your continued presence in the public sphere. When even other “experts” are clueless, it is evident that there is much more work to be done. “The Lights in the Tunnel” is an excellent analogy to describe the situation to both technical and non technical readers. I will write a brief primer of the issue on my site, and refer any who are curious about the subject your way.

    Without facing economic, technical, and social reality, we will never make progress in implementing effective policy.

  4. October 15, 2011 at 10:03 am | #5

    Martin, may I ask if you have ever read any of my articles over at H+ magazine?

    There is one in particular I would be interested in your opinions on, because I do see increasing automation as a vicious cycle that is not going to end, and we don’t even need robotics to make it happen. First, 3dprinters are improving so quickly that I see manufacturing quickly shifting from production lines to printers due to the advantages printing has of over them. This has the net effect of completely automating all forms of manufacturing. Secondly, improvements in smartphone technology and display technology is likely going to result in practical mobile VR, enabling you to be immersed in a VR environment no matter where you are, likely resulting in the ability to replace nearly all service workers with VR “bots” that look and sound human, but are merely sophisticated software.

    There is, however, a possibility that this will result in a net positive result after a period of transition, as I discuss here: http://hplusmagazine.com/2011/02/14/adding-our-way-to-abundance/ in which I argue that by making this shift to automated 3d printer technology, the inevitable progression will be to automate the factory, then abandon the factory model to place printers in the store level, eliminating the need for a transportation network for finished goods. Following this transition, the next step is to place 3d printers in every home, eliminating even the need for maintaining store fronts and enabling a completely virtual delivery system (the store would come to you in VR basically) for all finished goods, As we will likely be switching to a variety of “micro manufacturing” in which various forms of carbon will be used to produce a overwhelming majority of all “printed products” this will also eliminate the majority of the remaining jobs in the physical manufacturing sector (automated trucks could deliver the modest amounts of prepared carbon stock needed for the manufacture of those items which will still need to be physically made and are not wholly virtual). By putting nearly all the cost of manufacturing on the end user, Corporations will effectively become little more than design studios, spending minuscule amounts of capital to reap virtually nothing but profit.

    The flip side to this is that by doing so, corporations will basically cut their own throats by eliminating their ability to remain “gatekeepers” between the end user and their products. By putting a printer in every home, they will eliminate the “tilted playing field” that they have relied on to prevent real competition. Literally billions of new competitors will use the 3d printers to enter the market with competing designs offered at next to nothing, and forcing the “big dogs” to compete honestly. This will bankrupt them, and mark the end of the corporate model of “monolithic One size fits all” monopoly, shattering the megaliths into a billion different niche markets in which the trillions of dollars of capital currently horded by such mega corps flows much more freely, buys far more, and reduces the acquisition of basic needs to a trivial level allowing even the “poverty stricken” to afford the basic necessities with sufficient left over for the purchase of a significant level of “luxury”

    The need for large scale government action to cushion the destructive effects of automation is enormous, but temporary, a decade or so at most, after which the average individual will have no need of a “job” at all to meet basic needs, and merely work when they desire some “luxury”. During this “final phase” of universal automation, The need to continually tax increasing “profits” to alleviate some of the growing inequality between top and bottom is obvious, as the top will be draining ever greater amounts of resources out of the market until the last stage, when free competition can resume and the open market will devour them whole, spreading their resources as widely as possible.

    In other words, it will get worse before it gets better, but the better will come, and will result in unheard of levels of abundance, the elimination of human labor out of anything but individual desire, and nearly unlimited leisure. The problem is that a whole lot of people could suffer and die between here and there unless large scale action is taken immediately if not sooner.

  5. Leon
    October 25, 2011 at 10:12 pm | #6

    Martin A similar debate is occuring over at Slashdot.org

    http://hardware.slashdot.org/story/11/10/25/180258/the-real-job-threat

    A number of people are coming over to the point of view that the scream of luddite is no longer appropriate!

    • October 30, 2011 at 3:47 pm | #7

      Kurzweil’s “world of abundance” he talks about in the Singularity is not the issue. Only the transition scares me. There will come a tipping point.

  6. December 8, 2011 at 4:42 pm | #8

    Hi there my first time here, but I must say that you bring up some useful points, making for a truly helpful article.
    Thanks.

  7. Ross
    January 9, 2012 at 9:04 pm | #9

    Businesses might change the way they produce goods to respond to the possible decline in consumer wages.

    You could see them vertically integrate production, kind of like how Rockefeller Steel did last century, but instead rely primarily on machine labour.

    The basis for Martin’s contention that there will be big economic disruptions seems to be that the majority of people won’t be able to afford goods/services, so businesses will have no incentive to make things and will fold. But what if a business didn’t produce goods/services for human consumption anymore? A robotics oriented business could acquire mining facilities, timber facilities, oil drilling operations, etc. It would then automate those operations and be able to supply itself with the materials it needs to continue developing new technologies in a self-sustaining way, no wages/human economy involved. Its purpose would be simply to grow stronger, i.e. to take more resources under its control (more minerals, more land, more energy, more knowledge….) and to subdue any forces that oppose its expansion.

    There would be problems for the left behind humans, but the surviving corporation(s) would do well enough.

    Anyways, that’s just another theory….nice blog…hope your experiment with making the book free is working out.

    • Ross
      January 9, 2012 at 9:12 pm | #10

      edit: I mean the book is free if you choose to not pay anything for it….

  8. January 10, 2012 at 2:46 am | #11

    Ross,

    Is that really a world you want to live in? Is it even socially stable?

    Mark

  1. October 5, 2011 at 12:08 pm | #1
  2. November 18, 2011 at 6:34 pm | #2

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