What will the working environment in industrialised countries look like in 2030?
My basic thesis is that machines, robots and smart software are going to do a lot more of the work by that time. There will probably be less jobs and more competition among people for those jobs.
In your book Rise of the Robots you predict mass unemployment due to computerisation and automation. Such predictions are not new. What is different this time?
The most important difference is that machines are now beginning to think. Computers are now learning by themselves, which is why technology is going to replace all kinds of work – anything that is somehow routine and predictable regardless of the industry and in many cases regardless of skill and education. That includes assembly-line type jobs which have, for the most part, already disappeared. But it also includes occupations like flipping hamburgers or driving vehicles. And most importantly it includes a huge number of knowledge-based jobs where you have people sitting in front of a computer doing the same kinds of tasks again and again.
'It isn't only about low-skill jobs'
You mention the example of radiologists that could soon be replaced by computers.
Right. I think that is a job that is very likely to be automated completely at some point in the future, maybe not in the immediate future. But eventually computers are going to be better at interpreting visual images than humans to find out if there is a tumour. So this is an example of how it really isn’t only about low-skill jobs.
What does that mean for societies as a whole and individuals in particular?
It could be a great thing. If you imagine a future where no one has to do a job he or she hates. People have to work less and have more time, for leisure, family and so on. And that could happen but only if we adapt to it.
'Basic minimum income funded by taxes'
What if we don’t? Will our system collapse?
If we do not adjust – in the long run, perhaps. If technology eliminates millions of jobs people cannot generate an income anymore. Without that you face the risk of a downward economic spiral and potentially a crisis. So, eventually there is even a risk of social and political upheaval.
And there’s a real danger that many people would lose confidence in capitalism and seek an alternative.
Therefore you are calling for a basic minimum income. How would that be financed?
It would have to be funded with taxes – likely a combination of more progressive taxation on corporations and/or the wealthy, as well as broad-based consumption taxes. For example a carbon tax would be a good way to generate some of the revenues required.
'Path to prosperity has always been industrialisation'
What about developing nations. Are they also facing a massive turnover of jobs?
Yes. This is a global issue.
How will it affect the struggle against poverty?
The challenge will be that the path to prosperity for poor countries has always been industrialisation: building factories that employ huge numbers of low-wage, unskilled workers. We are entering a future where those types of factories will no longer exist. So, how will poor countries and their populations become wealthy? We will have to devise an alternative path.
The future you imagine – is it bright or dark?
I tend to be a long term optimist and a short term pessimist. We can imagine a utopian future where machines do much of the work – or at least the work that people do not enjoy. However, that optimistic future can be realised only if we solve the income distribution problem. That will be a huge political and social challenge. So, I worry about a crisis before we finally make the necessary adaption.
Martin Ford is a software specialist, entrepreneur in Silicon Valley and author of numerous books. The most recent is entitled Rise of the Robots, in which Ford explores how digitisation is changing our world of work. His ideas have caused a sensation in the USA – and, among other accolades, earned him the Business Book of the Year Award from the Financial Times and McKinsey.
Interview: Friederike Bauer
published in akzente 2/16