The Future of NC: Robot revolution

 In Features, February 2016

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Martin Ford, a keynote speaker for the 2016 Emerging Issues Forum at N.C. State University, is a scary prognosticator. The California software developer’s books, The Lights in the Tunnel in 2009 and Rise of the Robots last year contend that advances in artificial intelligence will make many jobs obsolete within a few decades, forcing governments to provide minimum-income guarantees for citizens. Once thought to be a threat mainly to blue-collar, factory work, robots also may replace many highly paid positions such as radiologists, software designers and financial analysts, Ford said in a recent interview. Comments were edited for brevity and clarity.

Why do you think we will have a guaranteed-income program?
I’m thinking far in the future because this is totally unthinkable in the U.S. right now. Not even Bernie Sanders is talking about this. But 20 years from now, it could be necessary if there really aren’t enough jobs or full-time jobs, and wages are so low that people can’t survive. You have to give people a floor of minimum income, which usually people think of as socialism. But it has been supported by conservatives.

Is a guaranteed-income plan being considered in other nations?
Some countries such as Finland are talking about it. Some people in Switzerland are seeking a ballot initiative. But you have to remember that European countries are way ahead of us in terms of providing a social safety net. It is more likely to happen there first.

What should be done to boost the number of quality jobs?
There is a skills mismatch because there are lots of jobs that people aren’t equipped for. I’m a big believer in community colleges. I’d like to see more students enrolled there instead of these for-profit colleges where kids are basically getting ripped off. States need to provide that training. For example, if you want to study nursing, there is usually a big bottleneck because there are not enough instruction opportunities. It would be much better if we fixed the problem by investing in community colleges.

Who is most threatened by robots?
If you are doing something routine or predictable, it is going to be impacted, whether it’s blue collar or white collar, whether you have a college degree or not. There are all kinds of knowledge work that involve sitting in front of a computer and that is relatively routine. At many big corporations, there are a lot of people cranking out the same kinds of reports. Those jobs are easier to automate than the low-paid person at Wal-Mart stocking shelves.

What about health care jobs?
It would require a science-fiction robot to replicate all of the work of nurses. That is a very hands-on job that requires considerable human interaction. But some of the best-paying physician jobs involve diagnostics, and those are the easiest ones to automate.

Will people have more leisure time?
That’s the hope because if more people are only working part time, they will have more time to do stuff that they enjoy. John Maynard Keynes wrote a famous essay in the 1940s that anticipated that everyone would work less and have more leisure time. But most people can’t afford part-time work because of the cost of living, particularly health care. None of this will happen automatically. We will need government policies to make it happen.

What about income inequality?
I think it will get worse and worse. People are working more hours because wages have stagnated. Both spouses are working in most households, working longer hours and often taking two or three part-time jobs to get by. 

Are many predictions from your 2009 book panning out?
The book underestimated the amount of progress that has occurred. I didn’t anticipate self-driving cars, which I expected would happen some day. But less than a year after the book came out, Google announced its self-driving car. Now everyone is working on that and it isn’t looking too far off. That alone will have a huge impact because driving for a living is the most common occupation among blue-collar men: delivery jobs, taxis, trucks. That’s a huge number of people whose work is threatened.

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