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The Worker Robots

An Interview with Martin Ford, Author, “Rise Of The Robots: Technology, And The Threat Of A Jobless Future”.

036-11Will robots take over the world? How many times have you heard this? From magazines to books, whenever we talk about robots this notion pops up. True- when Martin Ford titled his book, Rise of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of a Jobless Future, he might have expected this kind of hyperbole, but Ford had something entirely different on his mind. According to him, the book is not about robots taking over the world, but robots taking over our jobs. In Ford’s view, technology has changed our world so fast that we now must look for ways to reset our job market. The progress has been remarkable he says, but now we have to consider what we are going to do to prepare for a possible jobless future. I explored these phenomenon with Martin Ford in a recent interview.

Tell me the premise of your book, Rise of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of a Jobless Future.
The main premise of the book is that technology in the form of robots and artificial intelligence is gradually going to displace more and more of workers who are doing routine and repetitive work.

What has been the learning curve between this book and Lights in the Tunnel? What did you try to do differently?
I think that the newer book is an extension of the older book. After I wrote Lights, I was surprised by the level of progress made. For instance in the introduction Rise of the Robots, I mentioned when I wrote the first book a vague idea that cars would learn to drive themselves. Within a year of when the book was published Google demonstrated a working self-driving car. We have seen other developments that were formerly the providence of the human brain like IBM Watson and recent break throughs in deep learning, and we are now seeing computers outperform humans in many other areas like recognizing photos. The progress has been pretty remarkable. So the second book is grounded in the reality of today and what’s actually happening.

You are a technologist and a futurist. Were you concerned that readers would interpret your book to mean that technology is the solution and answer to everything?
What’s really happening is an interaction between the technology and capitalism. We will have to adapt our system to the new reality being created by technology as opposed to expecting technology or the market to sort this problem out for itself. But ultimately the argument that I am making is that this is not a problem for technology, but a problem for economics and politics.

Was it a concern that you might be seen \ as just expounding an “end of the world” theory?
My main concern is the economic impact and I am basing that concern on the continuing  progress on specialized technologies like robots with specialized actions. In addition, you have people like Elon Musk and Stephen Hawking talking about artificial intelligence and the rise of machines, this is more extreme than what I am talking about. My concerns are not predicated on whether or not we can build thinking machines. Is that possible? Will it happen? I don’t really have the answer to that. I think most people working in the field believe it will happen, but it is pretty far out there, 20-30 years. But it is a much less immediate concern than the economic impacts of this technology which I am talking about and which, I believe, we will see develop over the next 10-20 years.

Have you had a lot of pushback on the theories that you have discussed in the book?
I have had a fair amount. Many people have a traditional view of this and so far history doesn’t support this theory. History shows that the economy will adapt and move on to different areas. The classic example is the mechanization of agriculture. Where most people worked on farms, now only 1-2% work on farms. Then when farming was mechanized, other sectors of the economy such as a manufacturing sector developed. The manufacturing sector later mechanized and it, in turn, gave rise to a growing service sector where we are today.

In my book, my focus is on information technology, which, I believe, is ubiquitous and everywhere. It is impacting all the employment sectors. While it is really hard to imagine that the same thing that happened with agriculture will happen again, I cannot think of another sector that will arise and absorb millions and millions of people who will be impacted by this. It will not be the same as when people moved from the farms to the factories and there were all these manufacturing jobs. Sure there will be new industries like nanotechnology and virtual reality, but they will be technology-intensive. As we have seen with tech companies, they typically don’t hire a lot of people. So for me I I can’t imagine a futuristic industry that will appear in 10-20-30 years that would need millions and millions of average workers.

037-48How hard then will the average worker be impacted?
We are starting to see machines that are now being used by workers beginning to substitute for the workers more and more. In the near term it will hit average people who make up the majority of the workforce and who are doing the routine and repetitive jobs. I don’t worry much about the people with PhDs from MIT, but if you go far enough into the future and imagine superintelligence, even those people will be out of a job. In the near term, I believe that the average workers will be hit hard. We won’t be able to have a functional society and economy when 5%-10% people have jobs and everyone else is on the streets.

But don’t the most routine of jobs require some elements of tacit knowledge, common sense, or can machines accommodate the need for these innate qualities?
I am not arguing that machines will take over all the jobs. They will just take over a large percentage of the jobs. A lot of lower skilled jobs like that of a home health aide who daily assists geriatric patients exist and are routine, but they cannot be automated because mobility and dexterity is required in the job. Building a robot with these skills is still very, very hard to do. These jobs are protected by this reality.

The real paradox is that while, this job doesn’t require a high school diploma and pays poorly in terms of pay and benefits, it is the kind of job that would actually be good if we could automate it. But we can’t because this type of job is still too difficult to automate. The knowledge worker who has a college degree sitting in front of a computer and who is producing reports again and again might be easier to automate even though it is a desirable middle class job.

So you are not saying that machines will be a one to one replacement equivalent for humans?
In near terms, I don’t think so. Technology replicating human dexterity, hand eye coordination and an intelligent machine that can think like a human being is still far off even though I think that it could happen.

In your book you state that the universal solution, more education and training, is no longer a viable answer. Why won’t more education and training keep us ahead of machines?
Education alone is not going to be enough. We can keep making people more and more specialized but if you make things more specialized then often it’s easier to automate these jobs. I think that there will always be jobs for an extraordinarily talented person, but what percentage of workers/people in the marketplace does that encompass. If we are talking about 20% of talented workers, what do you do for the other 80% of our workforce? That’s the basic problem. Education is a great thing, but it is simply not realistic to think that you can educate that 80% of our workforce so that they remain relevant. Once you discard education as a solution, then you only have really radical solutions like a guaranteed income and there’s a lot of reluctance to accept that.

What then is your solution?
I propose that we institute a basic guaranteed income along with incentives. While other solutions like giving a chunk of money or providing capital endowments have been proposed, they are just as radical. Consider for instance that if you are a marginal high school student and it’s been a struggle to graduate, whether or not you graduate, you get a basic guaranteed income. That alone may be a powerful enough incentive to drop out and just take the money. But I believe that explicit incentives like paying a somewhat higher income for those who earn a diploma should be built within the idea of a guaranteed income.

How do you see a guarantee income plus incentives working in our economy?
A basic guaranteed income helps gets purchasing power into the hands of consumers so they can drive the economy and present a vibrant market for innovation. But if we have lots of unemployed people or people working, but who have wages that barely allow them survive, they don’t have any purchasing power to provide a viable market to support innovation. I think that if you gave people a basic guaranteed income then many people would start small businesses. While that income might not be enough alone to generate a middle class income, it might be enough incentive for them to create a business to supplement their income. Further, a person with a small business might also develop into bigger things which could lead to innovation. A well designed guaranteed income scheme with appropriate incentives might help people participate in the economy.

Since we are clearly on the path towards developing artificial intelligence, the question becomes… is there really any way to prepare for this… especially in this particular political and scientific climate?
Part of the problem is that it is widely complex. There are politics, demographic changes, and globalization which make it difficult to isolate this as a trend. So it will depend, to some extent, on how obvious it is. Over time the acceleration of technology will increasingly rise above these things and make it more obvious that we need to do something. Now people are talking about AI and it is gaining dramatically more attention than was given to it five years ago.

How do you think that Alan Turing would view your book? Do you think that he would agree with you that machines can ultimately replace humans?
I like to think so. He was open to the idea that machines could someday think. Turing believed if machines were able to think that the idea was so horrible most people would think that it simply can’t be true because it is so horrible. As a result, they deny it because the implications are so staggering. But yes, I do think that he would have agreed with a lot of the arguments that I make in the book.


Rise of the Robots is a thoughtfully written book that raises a great many questions that we, as a society, have not yet begun to manage. Ford mentions, at different times throughout the book, the rapid pace of technology and how he believes information technology is ubiquitous. While he has several examples to support his conclusions-one has to wonder whether or not, as a society, we will actually permit this type of automation to take over those routine jobs that are so susceptible to it. While technologists and futurists may believe, without consequence and sometimes with exuberance, that all encompassing technology is a good thing, there are others who are now raising the question-should we allow it to become so all encompassing in our lives and what exactly will be its long term impact. In talking with Ford, I think that he too is hoping to see the brakes applied to this rapid pace and that we will, as a society, consider its long term effects and come up with a plan that will allow a balance for both.


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