The Robots are Here — and You should be Worried

KATHLEEN ELKINS

irobot robot
According to an Oxford University study, 47% of US jobs could be automated within one to two decades.

It’s no surprise that technology is getting better, faster, and smarter. But is it at the expense of its makers?

Anxiety has been building around the second machine age and its implications for our economic future, and it may have reached a tipping point.

Just last week, Silicon Valley venture capitalists and executives published an open letter on the digital economy, calling for public-policy changes and new organizational models to account for this era of drastic technological change.

The authors write, “The digital revolution is the best economic news on the planet.”

But not everyone agrees. Several scholars have been sounding the alarm on the danger of technological progress.

During a presentation at the Carnegie Council for Ethics and International Affairs this week, researcher Wendell Wallach said technology is now destroying more jobs than it creates.

“This is an unparalleled situation and one that I think could actually lead to all sorts of disruptions once the public starts to catch on that we are truly in the midst of technological unemployment,” said Wallach, a consultant, ethicist, and scholar at the Yale University Interdisciplinary Center for Bioethics.

Martin Ford, a software developer and Silicon Valley entrepreneur, recently published the book “Rise of the Robots” in an effort to generate a conversation around the prospect of a jobless future.

We’re not worried enough, he says. Most people don’t understand the “mind-boggling” speed that technology is advancing at.

“When people talk about robots, they’re mostly imagining factories, but the factory jobs have been gone for decades,” Ford tells Business Insider.

rise of the robotsAmazon

In May, Shenzhen Evenwin Precision Technology, a manufacturing company based out of Dongguan in southern China, announced it would soon be replacing 90% of its 1,800 employees with machines. The 200 employees not receiving pink slips will take on a new role — overseeing the robotic workforce.

This is part of a larger trend in southern China, where robots are poised to invade several manufacturing companies.

If that isn’t unsettling enough, consider the Oxford University study, “The Future of Employment: How Susceptible are Jobs to Computerization,” which predicts that 47% of US jobs could be automated within one to two decades.

It’s no longer just the “dangerous, dirty, and dull” jobs on the block. Technology is also poised to replace white-collar positions, like lawyers, reporters, and financial analysts, to name a few.

While certain sectors, such as healthcare and education, are safer than others for the time being, Ford believes most industries will eventually be at risk.

But it’s not as much about what industry you work in, Ford explains, as it is the function you perform. Think about your job, he says, and consider whether or not any smart person could figure out how to do it if they watched you work or studied your past work patterns.

If so, then it’s a pretty good bet that an algorithm will eventually be able to figure it out as well, he warns. “If you look far enough into the future, say 50 years and beyond, there aren’t any jobs that you could say absolutely for sure are going to be safe.”

With creative computing underway, even the most artful of jobs could be at risk. Algorithms can now write symphonies and paint original paintings, Ford tells us.

Toyota RobotKoichi Kamoshida/Getty

“We should be concerned,” says Ford. “Primarily because we don’t have an alternate for people to lose their jobs.

“I’m not arguing that the technology is a bad thing. It could be a great thing if the robots did all our jobs and we didn’t have to work. The problem is that your job and income are packaged together. So if you lose your job, you also lose your income, and we don’t have a very good system in place to deal with that.”

The economic consequences could be dramatic, he says. Jobs drive consumption, and consumption drives our economy.

“Without consumers, we’re not going to have an economy. No matter how talented you are as an individual, you’ve got to have a market to sell it to,” Ford says. “We need most people to be OK. We need some reasonable level of broad-based prosperity if we’re going to continue to have a vibrant, consumer-driven economy.”

Of course, what Ford sees as a disaster, others see as an opportunity. The New York Times recently highlighted a study by the McKinsey Global Institute that presents a more cheerful outlook.

“By 2025, McKinsey estimates, these digital talent platforms could add $2.7 trillion a year to global gross domestic product,” the Times wrote. “And the digital tools, the report states, could benefit as many as 540 million people in various ways, including better matches of their skills with jobs, higher wages, and shorter stints of unemployment.”

Other experts point to the Industrial Revolution, which ultimately led to more employment opportunities, and say the same will happen during the second machine age. Some believe an increase in computing prowess will simply eliminate old jobs and introduce new ones, resulting in a net-zero effect — or even an increase in jobs.

However, Ford doesn’t believe the past will predict the future in this case. “On January 2, 2010, The Washington Post reported that the first decade of the 21st century resulted in the creation of no new jobs. Zero,” he writes in “Rise of the Robots.” “In other words, during those first 10 years there were about 10 million missing jobs that should have been created — but never showed up.”

The solution to this job displacement is not a simple one.

In the past, when low-skilled workers lost their jobs to technology, the conventional advice was to go to school for a better education and training and find more intellectual work in an office. This solution will no longer be effective, Ford says, because technology is coming after those higher-skilled jobs as well.


robot

robotChinaFotoPress/GettyRobots are invading the service sector, where most of our jobs are.

“Investment in education and training will unlikely solve our problems. We must look beyond conventional policy prescriptions,” says Ford.

His solution is a radical one: To effectively restructure our entire system.

Ford suggests a guaranteed income.

“You give people a minimum — a survivable income. Not something so generous that they just sit around and do nothing, but you give them enough so they don’t have to worry about basic survival,” he explains. “Some people would be lazy, but most others would want more and would work part-time, start small businesses, or work a more traditional job if they could find one.”

Ford is not the only one proposing such extreme changes.

Scott Santens, a leader in the basic-income movement — a worldwide network of thousands of advocates — agrees that job growth is not keeping pace with technology and encourages government-provided income as a remedy.

“It’s not just a matter of needing basic income in the future; we need it now,” Santens told The Atlantic. “People don’t see it, but we are already seeing the effects all around us, in the jobs and pay we take, the hours we accept, the extremes inequality is reaching, and in the loss of consumer spending power.”

It’s unlikely Ford and Santens’ proposal would become a reality, at least any time soon. “In today’s environment, such a radical solution is completely unthinkable,” Ford admits. “But the paradox is that it’s ultimately what we’re going to need in the future. It’s unclear how we’re going to get there.”

For now, it might be time to consider strategies for staying ahead of the robots before they come for your job.

 

 

 

The Billionaire Headed For The Moon

“It’s clear that the baton has been passed from the government to the private sector” when it comes to space exploration, Jain said. “Now it’s going to take an entrepreneurial spirit to do it at a better cost and to build a business around it.”

Jain, 55, is co-founder of Moon Express, a Mountain View, Calif.-based company that’s aiming to send the first commercial robotic spacecraft to the moon next year. This serial entrepreneur-he founded Internet companies Infospace and Intelius-believes that the moon holds precious metals and rare minerals that can be brought back to help address Earth’s energy, health and resource challenges.

Among the moon’s vast riches: gold, cobalt, iron, palladium, platinum, tungsten and helium-3, a gas that can be used in future fusion reactors to provide nuclear power without radioactive waste.

It’s an exciting prospect, considering supply on Earth for such rare minerals as palladium-used for electronics and industrial purposes-is finite, pushing prices to $784 an ounce on April 2.

“We went to the moon 50 years ago, yet today we have more computing power with our iPhones than the computers that sent men into space,” he said. “That type of exponential technological growth is allowing things to happen that was never possible before.”

Jain’s Moon Express is not alone in its quest to harness the moon’s riches. Several other Silicon Valley start-ups, such as Planet Labs and Masten Space Systems, have been making headlines recently as they enter the space exploration market, an endeavor long associated with, and controlled by, the government. At the same time, the global race is heating up with the Chinese government’s recent success in landing a robotic rover on the moon in December.

To fast-track innovation and bring a deep well of space knowledge to the company, Moon Express made a strategic-and highly symbolic-hire in mid-March when it announced that Andrew Aldrin, 55, son of Apolloastronaut Buzz Aldrin, is joining the company as its president. He is an industry veteran who was the former director of business development for Boeing NASA Systems who has a track record of commercializing space technologies.

Helping to drive this newfound interest in privately-funded space exploration is the Google Lunar X Prize. It’s part of the X Prize Foundation, an educational nonprofit organization that looks to address the planet’s biggest challenges by creating and managing large-scale, high-profile competitions to stimulate investment in research and development.

Moon Express is one of a handful of teams from around the world competing for the $30 million Lunar X Prize, a competition organized by the X Prize Foundation and sponsored by Google. It will be awarded to the first team that lands a commercial spacecraft on the moon, travels 500 meters across its surface and sends high-definition images and video back to Earth-all before the end of 2015.

Jain’s own belief in attempting outsized challenges began in the early 1980s when he immigrated to the United States. Soon after finishing his MBA in India, he was recruited by IT company Unisys (NYSE:UIS –News) and worked in Silicon Valley as a computer programmer for several years. In 1988 he married and moved with his wife to Seattle. “She thought the Pacific Northwest was a wonderful place to live, and I figured that if we were going to make that move, I might as well send my résumé to Microsoft,” Jain recalled with a laugh.

The résumé landed him an interview, a job offer, and resulted in a seven-year stint at the software giant. It also solidified for Jain what he really wanted: to start and run his own company. He left Microsoft in 1996 and founded InfoSpace, an online email and phone directory company that he took public. It was valued at $30 billion several years later. In 2003 Jain started Inome (formerly named Intelius), an online database and public records company that has grown into one of the largest information commerce companies, with more than 25 million customers.

“In a large company, you never know if people admire you because of what you’re accomplishing or what’s on your business card,” he said. “In life, everyone wants to be successful, but few people think about being significant. I believe that as an entrepreneur, I could have a much bigger impact on society.”

With Moon Express, Jain feels he has that opportunity. Along with partners Dr. Robert Richards, a physicist and founder of International Space University, a nonprofit organization that offers space training programs, and Dr. Barney Pell, Silicon Valley technology pioneer and a former NASA manager, Jain says Moon Express can offer more “democratic” access to the moon.

“Now that we’re shifting from U.S. government-sponsored space exploration to privately funded expeditions, it’s important to look at how the resources of the moon could benefit everyone,” he said.

For instance, Jain explains that helium-3 is a source of energy that is rare on Earth but abundant on the moon. It is a possible fuel for nuclear fusion that could solve energy demand on Earth for 10,000 years, at least. Platinum, another rare mineral here on Earth, is believed to exist in large quantities on the moon and could be used in various energy applications, he said. “Once you take a mind-set of scarcity and replace it with a mind-set of abundance, amazing things can happen here on Earth,” Jain said. “The ability to access the resources of the moon can change the equation dramatically.”

There are about 50 employees at Moon Express, Jain said, and the goal is to complete its moon launch during the second half of 2015 for under $50 million. “If our software knows how to land safely and send pictures back, we are proving the concept,” he explained. The fact that a company with just 50 employees can successfully land on the moon is something Jain excitedly calls a “singular event.”

“Once we can accomplish that, then the second or third mission can involve bringing things back from the moon,” he added.

By Susan Caminiti & Robert E.