[FoRK] The Robot Revolution: Your Job May Be Next

Eugen Leitl eugen at leitl.org
Wed Jul 13 06:28:22 PDT 2011


The Robot Revolution: Your Job May Be Next

By BLAIRE BRIODY, The Fiscal Times July 12, 2011

Without a doubt, America has reached the age of the robot. In the past few
years, hundreds of robotic breakthroughs have made headlines: unmanned
planes, bots in space, dancing robots, self-driving cars, a Jeopardy-playing
robot. Now, the President wants even more.

Last month Obama announced the National Robotic Initiative, a commitment to
invest $70 million in next-generation robotics that will allow “factory
works, health care providers, soldiers, surgeons and astronauts to carry out
hard-to-do tasks.”  And they have already done some pretty heavy lifting:  It
took a robot to finally cap the BP well that spilled millions of crude into
the Gulf.  And only a robot could enter Japan’s crippled Fukushima Daiichi
nuclear power plant to check radiation levels.

As useful and exciting as these new generation machines are, Obama might not
see the hole robots are digging for us: They’re rapidly evolving to take over
hundreds of thousands of human jobs, according to Martin Ford, author of The
Lights In the Tunnel: Automation, Accelerating Technology and the Economy of
the Future. Ford believes a massive job crisis is inevitable even before we
have time to catch our breath and recover from the current economic crisis.
In an interview with The Fiscal Times, Ford discusses why no one’s job is
safe, why jobs lost in the recession are never coming back, and what, if
anything, we can do about the robot revolution.

The Fiscal Times (TFT): You say that robots are poised to take over the
low-wage jobs of cashiers, fast-food workers , office assistants, and even
some high-wage jobs like radiologists.

Martin Ford (MF): Machines and computers are getting better at an accelerated
rate, and I think within maybe 5 to 10 years things are going to get to the
level where machines begin to surpass the ability of most people to do
routine work. I base this partly on my belief that most of the work out there
in the economy is routine in nature. There aren’t that many people that are
paid to think creative thoughts.

TFT: But haven’t people been talking about automation for years? Why hasn’t
it happened yet?

MF: The technology just hasn’t been there. It’s not about building the robot
arm, it’s about controlling the robot arm; it’s about how to make the machine
think and we’re just getting to that point now. It’s the first time we’ve had
this level of technology that allows machines to solve problems on their own,
to interact with their environment, to analyze visual imagines, and to
manipulate their environment based on that.
TFT: The common argument is that technology advances society and creates
jobs. Are  you saying it no longer will?

MF: So far, advances in technology have allowed us to become more prosperous
and push economic growth, but the reason it’s made workers more productive is
because machines and computers have been tools. At some point, we’re going to
get to where machines stop being tools to be used by workers and they become
workers in their own right. Without an income, people can’t participate in
the economy. Alan Blinder, an economist at Princeton, has been talking about
how productivity increases in the economy are no longer transmitted to
workers in the form of wages. Nowadays when we see productivity increases,
[the financial benefit] ends up at the top; it goes to the CEO, to the
shareholders, but workers don’t get any of it. It’s hard to have more
prosperity under this system because as workers start to lose jobs and see
lower wages, they can’t participate in the economy as consumers.
TFT: How might you re-wire the economy to adjust to this?

MF: If it’s at a point where there aren’t enough jobs or if those jobs don’t
provide enough income for people to cover their basic expenses, I think you
have to have some form of progressive taxation and redistribution. Right now,
we’re moving in the opposite direction, we’re talking about austerity, it
looks like we’re going to destroy the few safety nets that we have for
working people, and I honestly think it’s a disastrous move. The current
situation we’re in could really drag on and while we’re waiting for the job
market to recover, these technologies are going to continue to accelerate and
it’ll be more difficult to get these jobs back. It will be like running up
the down escalator. Economist David Autor has come to the conclusion that the
middle-range jobs that used to support a solid middle-class lifestyle are
pretty much gone.
TFT: Which middle-range jobs?

MF: Secretaries, administrative assistants, mid-range office jobs. If you’re
anyone other than the CEO you no longer have a secretary, you have a
computer. That type of job has already been eliminated. Jobs that involve
sitting at a computer are more susceptible to automation because they can be
automated with software, you don’t need robots. There is now software that
automates going through reams of documents and figuring out which ones are
important for a court case, something that used to be for lawyers and
paralegals. The first litmus test is ‘Is it a boring job? Is it repetitive
and tedious and boring even though you need lots of training?’ If so, it’s
probably going to be one of the first jobs to be hit.


TFT: How can job creation happen? Do you think we’ll ever get back to low

MF: I hope so, but technology is not going to stop getting better. There are
certain jobs that are going to be hard to automate, like being a plumber,
electrician, or a mechanic, but new technology-based jobs don’t have a long
history. They can be replaced by something else or eliminated entirely.
Data-entry clerks and IT jobs are getting automated and outsourced. The idea
that the jobs of the future will be in computers is becoming less true.
Increasingly you’ll see a winner-takes-all phenomenon where there’s a demand
for top people, those who graduate from MIT or something, but broad-based
employment is getting a lot tougher. It’s hard to know where the job creation
is going to come from.
TFT: What robot has affected the most jobs so far?

MF: The first enormous impact was when agriculture mechanized -- millions and
millions of jobs were lost. Most of those people shifted to another sector,
primarily manufacturing, and economists will argue that when you automate one
place, another sector will arise, and that’s historically true, but it’s not
easy: millions of people suffer and lose income. After manufacturing, we
became a service economy. Now the service sector is clearly going to be
automated, but what sector will rise up next? People talk about health care
but that’s really just a section of the service sector. Certain groups like
nurses and doctors will be fairly well protected but going forward even those
areas are at risk. A lot of what doctors can do in terms of diagnosis can be
done by automation.

Look at the companies you can think of that have come to prominence in the
last 10 years: Google, Facebook, Netflix, twitter – they’re all
technology-intensive companies that hire people who are highly skilled, but
don’t create jobs for average people.
There are a few labor-intensive parts of the economy left – big retailers,
restaurants, hotels –but what happens when fast-food begins to automate? What
happens when companies like Wal-Mart begin to use robots to stock shelves?
Then that labor-intensive part of the economy begins to look more like Google
– it becomes more technology intensive. It’s hard to imagine in the future
they’ll be some new industry that will have to hire lots of average people.
Maybe there could be hope in green energy like installing solar panels, but
only for a limited amount of time. Infrastructure is not a self-sustaining
job. In terms of new industries, they’re all going to be technology
intensive, not industries that employ lots of people. That’s going to be a
real problem and I don’t see how we get around it.

TFT: But don’t some jobs need a human touch? Such as a salesperson?

MF: In certain areas, yes. I actually always think there will always be sales
jobs. A social worker, for one, requires human-type interaction, but the
question is, can we put everyone in those jobs? Are there enough of those
jobs for everyone? There aren’t. If you figure 60 percent of the jobs out
there are routine jobs where people do the same kind of things subject to
automation, and you have a minority of jobs that are uniquely human than
there is going to be a secondary impact. In the government sector, the social
worker is likely to be gone because the government can’t afford the social
worker. We see that in schools, counselors are getting cut because they can’t
afford them. They can’t be automated, but they’re getting cut because of
what’s happening on the revenue side.

TFT: How about the risks involved with automation? Powerful computers and
high-frequency trading on Wall St. is one reason among many that could prompt
a market crisis. Will there be more risks like that in the future?

MF: It’s possible -- you’ll see more trading get automated and happening at
these incomprehensible rates and no one knows what’s going on; it’s a bunch
of computers autonomously doing things. Last year, the market had that flash
crash and it took months to really analyze it and I don’t know if they can
agree on what happened, but it will create a danger in markets.

TFT: So what do we do about it?

MF: If we do nothing, that would result in social instability; you’ll have
people living in tent cities, losing their homes, even worse than now. That’s
the path to disaster. What I suggested in the book is [to] get the government
involved in providing an income with what I consider to be a market-based
approach because you’re doing taxation and redistribution, you’re giving
people some kind of an income but they’re still participating in the market
as consumers. There isn’t a solution where everything will be OK – but we
have to do something. I want lots of people, including economists, to be
thinking more about this issue because right now they’re very dismissive of
it and they don’t see it as a problem and I think it deserves more attention.
If in fact so many of the ideas that I’m suggesting turn out to be correct
and we run into a problem, at least people will have thought about it.

For more on robots from The Fiscal Times:

Could Fast Food Robots Steal McJobs?

Here Come the Robots…And There Go the Jobs? 

Bionic Eyes That Can Help the Blind See 

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