Futurist and New York Times bestselling author Martin Ford on job automation, a general basic income, and which skills to acquire to prepare for a drastically changing future.
Martin Ford, New York Times bestselling author of Rise of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of a Jobless Future is a long time advocate of a general basic income. His 2017 Ted talk reached more than 2 Mio views. In the following interview, he shares his concerns and predictions for the next years to come.
I do think it’s absolutely true that the most important skill anyone can learn for this future that we’re facing is how to keep learning, how to adapt, and how to do that very effectively and with great enjoyment.
Could you tell a little bit about your background?
I am a futurist and an author and what I focused on, at least so far, is the impact of artificial intelligence on society and the economy.
I wrote a book called “Rise of the Robots: Technology and the threat of a Jobless Future”, which focuses on the fact that I do think there’s tremendous potential for a lot of jobs to be automated and to simply disappear.
Also, inequality can greatly increase as essentially what’s happening with artificial intelligence is that capital is displacing labor and of course capital is owned by very few people; wealthy people tend to own lots of capital, and most other people do not own much. Over time it makes our whole society more unequal. I think this is going to be a real challenge for us in the coming decades.
Can you elaborate on the connection automation and inequality?
The basic reality is that the vast majority of people on planet Earth really only have one thing of value and that is the value of their labor. The vast majority of people even in countries like the United States, which is obviously a very wealthy country, really don’t own much in the way of property. The number of people that own enough capital that would sustain them, so that they do not have to work is very small, and if you look throughout the whole world globally, it is even smaller.
Most people rely on the value of their labor and what’s going to happen as a result of advancing artificial intelligence and robotics is that a lot of that labor is going to be devalued and this labor is simply not going to be worth as much because technology is going to be able to do a lot of the routine, repetitive, predictable type of jobs and tasks that people are now paid to do.
Maybe within 10 or 15 years, it will be quite obvious what’s happening and that is going to be an enormous challenge for our society in terms of figuring out how to structure our economy and change things around so that we can all continue to thrive in that world.
10 to 15 years is not very distant into the future. What makes you certain that the advancements are happening at such a rapid pace?
10 to 15 years is a guess and it certainly could turn out to take longer than that. The main point is that I think it’s inevitable and it really does not matter too much whether it’s 10 years or 20 years or even 30 years. Ultimately it’s something that we’re going to have to deal with.
I do believe that we are at an inflection point or a time when things are going to operate differently.
In the past, many jobs have already been automated but they’ve tended to be more manual jobs and physical labor type jobs or the kinds of jobs where you’re literally standing on an assembly line doing the same thing again and again or very narrow computational jobs in terms e.g. calculating numbers. But what we see now is that this technology is much broader, it’s beginning to displace cognitive capability or even intellectual capability.
We’ve got learning machines that are making decisions and solving problems and that’s going to ultimately impact a lot of white-collar work, and certainly more routine things like for example the kind of office worker that creates the same kind of report over and over again or the same kind of quantitative analysis. All of that is going to definitely be increasingly susceptible to automation and the same thing among blue collar jobs that require more dexterity or more visual perception. Those jobs are also increasingly going to be impacted.
The point is that a larger and larger fraction of jobs is going to be susceptible. Of course, there will be new jobs created. That’s one thing that people will always point out.
That’s true but the question is how many of those new jobs are going to be there and will those new jobs really be a good match for the people who are going to need jobs. Because if all the new jobs you’re creating are for robotics engineers and A.I. researchers and data scientists then those are not jobs that can be done by people that are now flipping hamburgers or driving a taxi in most cases. That does create a problem.
You are an advocate of a general basic income. Why could that be a solution?
The reason I advocate a basic income is that I’ve looked at the various solutions that you might have to this problem and there aren’t many. I mean you’re talking literally about a world where there’s just not enough work to go around or where at least certain groups of people at certain skill levels are going to have a really hard time getting a foothold in the economy. The opportunities are simply not there.
There are really not a lot of solutions you can think of in that scenario. I think the basic income is the easiest and the most straightforward way to approach it.
The idea is to guarantee everyone at least a minimal unconditional income. Most proposals that I’ve seen are at most a thousand dollars or a thousand euros per month, something in that range. There was an experiment going on in Finland, which was discontinued but I think there it was only six hundred euros. It’s a pretty low amount and it’s really not an amount that is going to make someone just stay home and play video games.
The idea is to give people a minimal income but you don’t destroy the incentive for them to do more. So the idea is that people would get that income but they still might work part-time if they can find that or even full time if they’re lucky enough to find a full-time job or they might go out and do something entrepreneurial, maybe start a small business to augment their income.
The idea is to create a world where you preserve that incentive for everybody to be as productive as they can be.
I think that has a lot to recommend because if you look at our safety net as it exists now, especially in some European countries, for example in Scandinavia, there’s quite a generous set of benefits for people that don’t work. But as soon as you do work then you lose those benefits. That creates a disincentive to go and do anything, to really take the initiative to go and do anything and that’s a problem. The advantage of a basic income is that you give people a minimal income and they hopefully will still go out and do as much as they can. You don’t have people just sitting at home, not working, which creates lots of social problems.
It is really important that we create things for people so that people continue to feel engaged. They continue to feel that they’re contributing to something. These are all important problems. Just giving people money is not a sufficient solution. We know that from the way people react in terms of these programs in the past.
Computers are already better at certain complex games such as chess and GO and practitioners are now using AI to increase their performance in these games even more. In other words, they use AI to augment their skills and hobbies.
I think that’s right. Art is another area. You might see a lot of people become artists, which in today’s world is really hard. There are a lot of starving artists. It’s hard to make a living that way but if you had a universal basic income many people could do things that they’re passionate about and what they really feel strongly about even though that might not be things that are really valued in the market.
You would open up that possibility for people to turn hobbies into something that they want to focus on or small businesses that by themselves would not generate sufficient income for people to survive but maybe in conjunction with the basic income would open up all kinds of possibilities.
I’ve also suggested that we might even go a little further and build direct incentives into a basic income, maybe not pay everyone exactly the same amount but if you actually do some of these productive things; e.g. become an artist and work in the community to help people or start a small business and do something productive, you’ll get paid a little bit more as opposed to if you really just stay home and sit in a chair and play video games and do nothing.
People could utilize this as an opportunity to expand their horizons rather than just kind of drop out of society and have a very unhealthy outlook.
How can an individual prepare for this kind of future?
There are a couple of levels, at the macro level, be aware of this and talk to other people and engage in conversation. Make sure that you’re thinking about this and the fact that eventually, this is going to have to be part of our politics. We’re going to have public policies to address this.
I think it’s really important for people to have an open mind and to help make that discussion happen in terms of what these technologies are going to mean for our society. At a more individual level e.g. to make sure my job does not disappear or what should my kids study in school…
I think the best advice is that in general, we can say that technology is really going to impact heavily on jobs that are predictable things, routines and repetitive tasks where you come to work and you do the same kinds of thing again and again.
You want to stay away from those things and instead, you want to do things that are more creative, things that maybe involve lots of sophisticated interaction and relationship building with other people because these are things that machines right now are not good at. Probably, there will be a long time before we can build machines to do those things and another area would be skilled trade type work like electricians, plumbers, the kinds of jobs that require lots of dexterity and mobility and unpredictable environments. We can’t build a robot to do what an electrician or a plumber or a nurse does because these are jobs that really require running around and dealing with all kinds of unpredictable things. Those kinds of jobs are the safest ones for people right now. In terms of your future career or what you’re doing you want to orient yourself to that kind of work.
The same thing with what your kids are focusing on in school; you do not want them to be trained to do some routine predictable job because that’s probably going to be threatened. That’s the best kind of advice to give people on a more direct individual basis.
That means that the educational system has to be completely restructured. That is not really happening and the old ways of teaching prevail.
Education is hard to fix. I think there’s a lot of proms there from these technologies with online education that’s going to incorporate artificial intelligence, e.g. structured learning program that is really individualized and customized. You’ll be able to go online very cheaply and become educated using these technologies. That’s one thing that’s very positive.
I do think it’s absolutely true that the most important skill anyone can learn for this future that we’re facing is how to keep learning, how to adapt and how to throughout your life continue to learn and to do that very effectively and how to really enjoy that; to love learning.
I think for my children, I would say that’s the most important skill that I would want to instill in them for the future. Certainly, if you have young children now, no one can really imagine what the world is going to look like by the time they’re adults or deep into their careers.
The best we can do is to make sure that they have the tools to adapt to a future that’s going to change ever more rapidly.
If you could do one thing right now, structural adjustments, for example from an economic perspective you could restructure the economic system or you could change the educational system within a very short time frame, what would you do? Where would you start?
If I had the power I would get us started at least with some sort of a minimum basic income and it might be very low, only maybe 200 euros a month but just a start to put that program in place so that in the future it could be expanded and the amount paid could be increased as this process goes forward because there are many arguments for that basic income even setting aside all of this speculation about the impact of technology. For many years there have been people that have advocated a basic income just as a way to address poverty and to some extent inequality and really to make our system a bit more functional.
I think there is a strong argument for that. I’d really like to get that idea out there. And again I think it would be fine to do it in a very low level initially if that’s all that we can handle politically but ultimately I think it’s a very important idea for the future. Even though it’s politically going to be enormously challenging it is important to begin a discussion and if possible the implementation as soon as possible.
How do you define AI? Many people think of AI as a terminator kind of technology that is going to overtake the world, including concepts of consciousness and self-awareness. Do you think that is a prerequisite for the future you are drawing?
That kind of science fiction stuff that people worry about is certainly not a prerequisite to what I’m worried about in terms of jobs being automated. I mean A.I. is a continuum. All that artificial intelligence that exists today is what we would call narrow or specialized artificial intelligence so it’s nothing that approaches the way a human being thinks or could in any way threaten us by having a will of its own or something like that. I don’t think we are anywhere close to that yet.
Nonetheless, artificial intelligence that can do specific things with superhuman competence is going to threaten a lot of jobs because people also do specific things.
This was the whole point that Adam Smith made about the division of labor. A lot of jobs are specialized and they are going to be impacted by this specialized A.I.
Having said that it is a fascinating topic to think about, if at some point in the future we can really build a true thinking machine that can think on the level of a human being and there are absolutely people working on that and people have raised concerns about what that means in terms of machines that eventually could be smarter than us and so forth.
Those are not silly concerns that we should laugh at but we should understand that that’s far in the future and probably for that reason, not the thing that we should be focused on. There are other things right now that are much more practical and going to be happening within the next 10 or 20 years.
What are you working on at the moment and are there any upcoming new projects?
While conducting this interview, Martin, published a new book, interviewing world-leading AI experts about the present and future of AI. The book is called, Architects of Intelligence: The truth about AI from the people building it.
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About the author:
Michael Burkhardt is a Travelpreneur (50+ countries) with a MSc. in Innovation Management. He works on changing AI education and blogs about mindset shifts, meditation tips, and body hacks for young travelpreneurs.