Future coming when machines will have all the jobs


WASHINGTON—Martin Ford saw it everywhere, even in his own business.

Smarter machines and better software were helping companies do more work with fewer people. His Silicon Valley software firm used to put its programs on disks and ship them to customers. The disks were made, packaged and delivered by human beings.

Now Ford’s customers can just download the software to their computers—no disks, no packaging, no delivery workers.

“It is getting easier and easier to avoid hiring people by taking advantage of technology,” Ford says.

An ordinary entrepreneur might simply have welcomed the cost savings. But something nagged at Ford: He wondered how a consumer economy—and 70 percent of the US economy consists of consumer spending—could function if machines kept dislodging the workers who did the vast majority of the spending.

“At some point you simply will have too few viable consumers to power a healthy economy,” he says.

So in 2009 he thought through what would happen to the economy if machines kept replacing human workers. The result was his book, “The Lights in the Tunnel.”

Apocalyptic vision

Ford, 49, describes a nightmare scenario. Machines leave 75 percent of American workers unemployed by 2089. Consumer spending collapses. Even those who are still working slash spending and save everything they can; they fear their jobs are doomed, too.

As people lose work, they stop contributing to Social Security, potentially bankrupting the retirement system.

Ford knows that his apocalyptic vision defies history. For two centuries, technological advances—from steam power to the combustion engine—have delivered more economic growth, more wealth, more and better jobs.

“The historical argument is compelling,” he says. “It’s been going on for 200 years.”

But this time is different, Ford contends.

Growing machine power

Machines can do more and more human work. They don’t just replace human brawn the way older machines did; increasingly, they substitute machine power for human brainpower.

And their powers will only grow. Computing power doubles every 18 months to two years. “Information technology continues to advance exponentially,” Ford says. “So the future impact is potentially going to be much greater than anything we have seen thus far.”

Just look at what the military is doing: Waging war with drone aircraft, deploying robots to sniff out bombs in Afghanistan.

“If you can build machines that operate autonomously on the battlefield, you can build machines that operate autonomously in a warehouse,” Ford says.

Keeping economy spinning

In this face of such relentless competition, what can mere humans do?

Don’t fight technology, Ford says. Smarter machines will make life better and increase wealth in the economy.

The challenge, he says, is to make sure the benefits are shared when most workers have been supplanted by machines.

He suggests imposing massive taxes on companies, which would be paying far less in wages thanks to automation, and distributing the proceeds to those left unemployed by technology. That would give them money to spend to keep the economy spinning.

To prevent the creation of a massive, idle underclass, Ford suggests paying incentives for people to keep going to school and to behave in ways that benefit the environment and society.

He admits his ideas are “fairly radical and politically untenable … But I don’t believe there are any easy conventional solutions.”  AP

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  • delpillar

    You can Google this topic (for related explanations regarding this article):

    “Recession, tech kill middle-class jobs”

  • Mux

    Humankind will always seek to better themselves. I sincerely doubt that a machine that will be built that would match the power of human ambition. Once the best machine is built, someone else will want to build an even better machine. For that, more people will be needed who have creativity, brain power, and yes even some manual work. Unless of course, we all go the way of Wall-E

  • cesdeco

    Every time society or technology reaches a point of singularity it has a way of transcending it. It happened many times in the past like in the industrial revolution where machines supplanted humans in production. An example in science is the transition from Newtonian Physics to relativity. Perhaps machines are there for mundane tasks and human talents and resources can be relegated to something more transcendental. Besides, the system has a way of regulating itself. May be the proliferation of machines will tend to reduce population which is good for all concerned because then the system becomes more sustainable. We must not be afraid because that is how the society revolutionizes by blooming and unfolding every time it reaches certain stage or certain level, otherwise we’ll just stagnate. The real singularity is still very far. This is just the beginning. We are still in the crude stage of our maturing process.

  • WeAry_Bat

    They haven’t made robots which safely segregates garbage. 

    And that is where the author misses everything by a whole boat…

    Machines replaced humans only in occupations related to businesses wanting to increase profit because of high capitalization and costs.  This is sometimes due to competition. In the case of drones, the cost of a US soldier is much much higher than a mechanical drone.

    Now garbage, it has not so much financial profit but a big, big value for saving the environment.

    That in a way, what I sometimes say when the metrics of this world is skewed towards GDP, GNP, credit ratings, etc.  It is skewed to skewering us to a world of destructive commoditization, to consume and produce packages, items, etc.

    This story is under “Home > Sports > Latest Technology Stories > Gadgets ”  I do not know if someone, some people will get my message, who have been wondering like Neo, that something seems wrong with the world…

  • dickperez

    If I may add a “piece of my mind” to this analogy – and to follow the “cause and effect” theory – then this might be what is happening to the economies of the first world nations – like the United States. Setting aside the fact that it is just recovering from the “financial burst” of 5 years ago – what we are seeing now is high unemployment inspite of the big corporations raking in huge profits. In other words – they have cut down manpower in huge proportions – ergo “high unemployment” but remained competitive because of the advancement of communication technology and smart machines which replaced human power. And that is the reason why the middle class is thinning out but the super rich are expanding.

  • farmerpo

     ‘they substitute machine power for human brainpower.’

    This is plain chicken manure.
    The most modern, and powerful computer in the world can’t even outshine a cockroach when it comes to brainpower. Computers are said to have AI which is just an aphorism, is the product of the brain of men/women who makes the computers work. Without people brains, the most sophisticated computer will just be a paperweight. No machine can sit down with a paper and pencil and conceptualize an idea. Plain common sense can’t even be programmed into a machine. AI being developed since the early 70’s can’t even touch the common sense of a four year old child.

    Machines are for brawn, not brain. Only repetitive logic may be displaced by machines.   Hail Asimo.

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