“The robots are coming” is not something Paul Revere said during the American Revolution, but it is certainly something many people have uttered over the years.
So have we finally reached the tipping point where artificial intelligence and robots will begin to take over human jobs en masse? Perhaps not, but we are closer to the time when they will be even more essential assets and presences in the workforce, explains Martin Ford, the author of the book “Rise of the Robots.”
I caught up with Ford at The Economist magazine’s Innovation Forum event, which was held earlier this month. He pointed out that artificial intelligence is making its way into sectors that were once manned by only man, including the legal profession, where computer systems such as Watson could muscle in on human territory to provide legal counsel, and even journalism where stories are being written without direct human input about some articles. That said, I can assure you this blog was written without the aid of a technological wonder — unless you count the Mac I typed it on.
Of course, artificial intelligence still has a ways to go. Just ask Microsoft, which recently launched its Tay bot on Twitter. It was supposed to converse with other social media users as a millennial woman would. Not even one day after it was launched, the bot started promoting a Nazi agenda and harassing other users. There’s nothing artificial about that.
This is part two of a series of interviews. To read part one — my interview with Synack CEO Jay Kaplan — click here. The following is an edited transcript.
Whatever Works: Tell me about what you’re seeing in the robotics industry and with artificial intelligence.
Martin Ford: What we’re seeing is some really staggering developments. These technologies are moving faster and faster. They are already beginning to encroach on really all types of work — everything from low-skill jobs, obviously working in factories and warehouses and so forth all the way up to higher-level jobs done by, for example, lawyers and journalists and people who have lots of education. So this is actually a broad-based impact that’s going to really just unfold throughout the economy and the job market.
WW: This is something that I’ve been reading about for years where robots are going to start taking jobs from humans. Are we headed in that direction or is that all science fiction?
Ford: As you say, this is an idea that’s been around for a long time. Actually it’s been around for 200 years since the Luddite revolt in England. And many people worried about it, and so far it hasn’t happened. But I do think there are good reasons to believe that we finally have the technology, that things are really happening now, especially if you look at what’s going on in developments in artificial intelligence, machine learning, an area called deep learning. There’s really rapid progress there. So I do think we’re getting close to the point where we’re going to see an impact across the board.
WW: Do you have any examples of jobs that are in danger?
Ford: There are plenty of examples you can point to. Near San Francisco where I live, you used to have to give money to a person when you cross the Golden Gate Bridge. Now that’s completely automated. You just drive through and a photo is taken of your license plate and later on your charged or you get a bill. And this kind of thing is happening all over the place. Still, I think that the biggest impact definitely lies in the future. We’re sort of at the leading edge of it now. You can point to specific examples where things have happened, but it’s becoming much more broad-based and dramatic, and I think that over probably 10, 20 years, we’re really going to begin to see it.
WW: How should companies wrestle with this question of heading toward automation and artificial intelligence vs. I have people here who need jobs?
Ford: In some sense, that’s not the struggle that any individual business can be expected to take on. There’s a very powerful profit incentive. That’s how capitalism works. You want to minimize your costs, and even if you’re not comfortable with that, if one of your competitors [does] it, then there’s going to be a very strong dynamic that’s going to push things in that direction. To some extent, I think this is going to be more of a question for society and for our political and economic system. What are we going to do collectively to adapt to this new reality? And that’s going to be, I think, a very important challenge for us over the next couple of decades.