/ Insights / Martin Ford: ‘Robots will disrupt the whole economy’

Martin Ford: ‘Robots will disrupt the whole economy’

Last year Stephen Hawking, Elon Musk and Bill Gates warned us about the existential treat that artificial intelligence (AI) poses to humanity. However real those concerns may be, it’s not the only crisis the advancement of AI will pose to the world. “The real treat is a world without work”, says Martin Ford in his international bestseller Rise of the Robots. StartupJuncture spoke to him on this matter.

Several leaders in the scientific community voiced concerns after Boston Dynamics, founder Marc Raiber, released a video showing a terrifying six-foot tall, 320-lb. humanoid robot named Atlas, running freely in the woods.

But in the near distance, the ultimate AI embodiment is not the Terminator or its millennium version Ultron. It’s algorithms and robots in whatever form taking over millions of jobs. “Information technology is going to invade every sector and as a result disrupt the whole economy”, Ford says in a Skype-interview.

The long term trend is that startups will destroy jobs overall

To put things into perspective: due to economic recession, job creation has become the number one priority of most politicians. And even though there are signs of improvement in this field, the recovery of massive unemployment has been slow.

In the Netherlands 600.000 people (7 percent) are officially unemployed. A figure that is low in comparison to countries such as Greece and Spain, that have unemployment rates of well above 20 percent. The latest stats of youth unemployment are even worse: in many European countries over than 40 precent of youth is unemployed.

It’s here where startups come in. Heralded as innovative job creating machines they are seen by many politicians as the beacon of light for a prosperous future. Looking beyond the surface however, tech startups will instead usher the jobless world Ford is talking about in his book, as they will inevitably be powered by AI.

AI startups

Data demonstrates the current mini-boom in AI interest: in 2014 funding of pure-play AI startups increased by 302 percent on year-over-year basis. Global technology companies such as Google, Alibaba, Facebook, Amazon and Apple are all investing heavily in AI. Ford: “The long term trend is that startups will destroy jobs overall.”

This end-of-work argument has often been dismissed by economists as the ‘Luddite fallacy’, referring to the namesake 19th-century English textile workers who protested against newly developed technologies.

Just a few days ago, the Dutch National Association of Economists (KVS) published the book ‘The Match Between Man and Machine’ on the implications of robotization of our society. “Theories about massive destruction of low-skilled work and technological revolution sell, but you shouldn’t exaggerate their ramifications”, said Bas ter Weel, deputy director of the CPB (the government’s think thank for economic policy analysis) in an interview (link in Dutch) in Het Financieele Dagblad.

Secretary-General Maarten Camps, the most senior civil servant in the Dutch Ministry of Economic Affairs, stated in the same article that “jobs will disappear, but work will remain to exist.”

When the point of super intelligence is reached, everything will be on the table


Ford nevertheless argues that things are different this time. And he’s not alone. An increasing number of technologists and economists, such as former US Treasury Secretary and Harvard economist Larry Summers argue that the Luddites were not wrong, but premature.

“Technology is progress,” says Ford. “But we have to recognize that we are entering a new age in which machines are really getting closer to being autonomous, and start to take over our jobs. When the point of super intelligence is reached, everything will be on the table.”

StartupJuncture: Robotization of society almost flows naturally from our ambition to live a more efficient life. Do you think we have a choice in progressing the digitization of society?

Martin Ford: “As people’s lives get disrupted, many would want to limit technological progress. That’s not the right thing to do. Technology innovation means progress, and we shouldn’t halt it. It’s is the core reason why we live a much better life than a century ago. I think we have to recognize that we are entering a new age in which machines are getting closer to being autonomous. This means they are going to substitute for human labor, and that will have implications for the distribution of income as well as the number of jobs. We need to adapt our economy and society so we can continue to make progress.”

Former Dutch prime minister Jan Peter Balkenende stated that technological development always implies a change of orientation in the way the labor market functions. With the right strategy new jobs can always be created. Do you agree?

“That’s the conventional view. The classical example people give to prove this point is the case of agriculture: due to mechanization in agriculture millions of jobs disappeared, but the economy adapted. In my view, things are different this time. People forget that the ecconomy adapted, because agriculture technology disrupted only one sector. The rest of the economy had the abillity to absorb the surplus workers. As a general purpose technology, information technology is ubiquitous. It’s going to invade every sector and disrupt the whole economy.”

But when it comes to creativity and interpersonal reactions, humans still have an edge. Is that enough to save their jobs?

“I suspect that’s not enough, because most people are not creative. They will not be Einstein’s, sitting in front of white boards thinking of blue sky dots. A very large percentage of our population is primarily paid to do routine work – predictable things that will start to disappear.”

Technologist Marc Andreesson argues that there isn’t a fixed amount of labor and that the robotization of our society will unleash the true creative human potential. Essentially because people can be whoever they want to be when they don’t have to work for a living. Do you agree?

“It’s true that there isn’t a fixed amount of work and obviously it’s a good thing that people can free up time to be creative. But there is no reason to think that additional work created will be done by humans instead of robots. People won’t be able to make a living by being creative. It’s a completely elitist way of thinking that comes from being very wealthy and living in Silicon Valley.”

How should we adapt to this new reality?

“In the long run we probably need some sort of guaranteed income, but arraging this will be an enormous challenge. I think we need some sort of big crisis to adapt. In the mean time, the conventional solution is education. But there is a limit to that. It is impossible for everyone to be schooled as a scientist. Beyond that, computers and algorithms are coming for those higher skilled jobs as well. People with college degrees like lawyers will also be threatened by machine learning and software automation.”

How does this relate to general artificial intelligence?

“My thesis is about jobs disappearing is based on narrow AI or specialized artificial intelligence, because the majority of people do specialized work. I think that’s all it takes. If we create strong AI or a super intelligence everything is on the table.”

Because then Andreessen’s creativity argument doesn’t hold anymore?

“That’s right. Super intelligent robots will also be creative. Current research in this area shows the beginnings of computer creativity. Algorithms can write symphonies, there are painting algorithms. People have used genetic programming to produce new designs. If it gets to the level of AGI it’s pretty much game over. No matter how smart you are or which school you went to, you’re not going to be competitive with a super intelligent machine. There are really no jobs that are safe at that point.”

What will global society look like, from a socio-economic perspective?

“You can still have a guaranteed income when machines do all the work. Then we would have something like a Star Trek economy. The issues of existential threat, Elon Musk and Stephen Hawking are talking about are premature, because we are not really close to that point yet. But I don’t think it’s a ridiculess issue. You can’t dismiss it.”

Elon Musk, Sam Altman, Reid Hoffman and others just launched OpenAI to build a benign form of super intelligence. What will be the role of human beings in a world of “kind” super intelligent machines?

“It’s hard to know. Maybe just to be happy. I guess the question will be: can humans ultimately control it? Then we may take credit for it. But if the machines have control, people become irrelevant.”

Startups are often heralded as the new engines of job creation. Do you concur?

“Some startups create highly paid jobs. But overall they destroy them. It’s either winners taking it all, or about distribution like Airbnb. I don’t see much value creation. I think it’s fine for governments to support them, but maybe they should support companies that are really making a difference in the world. For instance companies that are looking into green energy.”

If you look at the finalists of the DARPA robotics challenge, it seems robots have a long way to go before they can actually do what humans do. What is the timeframe you’re talking about?

“In that particular application they do have a long way to go, because it’s a real challenge to build a robot that has the same  mobility and dexterity of a human being.

Paradoxal, the jobs those robots do are less likely taken over by robots, because the humans performing them are underpaid. The better jobs are often information jobs that can be automated more easily.

An extreme example is the job of a radiologist. A medical doctor that had a tremendous amount of training in reading CAT-scans. It pays extremely well, but machines are getting very good at that. It’s a lot easier to build a machine that reads medical scans than a robot that does the tasks required in the DARPA challenge.”

Samir Saberi
Entrepreneur | Co-founder @StartupsAnoniem, @StartupJuncture | Partner @StartupDelta | Node1| Tech Blogger| Samir is interested in and loves to work with crazy, dissident, rebel startups that challenge the status quo to make things better. Drop him a line at samir[at]startupjuncture[.]com

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Samir Saberi
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