Interview with Martin Ford

Martin Ford is a futurist and the author of two books: The New York Times Bestselling Rise of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of a Jobless Future (winner of the 2015 Financial Times/McKinsey Business Book of the Year Award) and The Lights in the Tunnel: Automation, Accelerating Technology and the Economy of the Future, as well as the founder of a Silicon Valley-based software development firm. He has over 25 years experience in the fields of computer design and software development. He holds a computer engineering degree from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor and a graduate business degree from the University of California, Los Angeles.

He has written about future technology and its implications for publications including The New York Times, Fortune, Forbes, The Atlantic, The Washington Post, Harvard Business Review, The Guardian and The Financial Times. He has also appeared on numerous radio and television shows, including NPR, CNBC, CNN, MSNBC and PBS. Martin is a frequent keynote speaker on the subject of accelerating progress in robotics and artificial intelligence—and what these advances mean for the economy, job market and society of the future.


BT: First of all I wanted to start with the main themes of your work, particularly your book Rise of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of a Jobless Future. You talk about how widespread automation will be, and that it’s not necessarily clear that there will be replacement jobs as there were for the Industrial Revolution. Could you elaborate on why you think that?

Martin Ford: Artificial Intelligence and robotics are going to be general-purpose technologies, which means that they’re essentially going to be everywhere, they’re going to invade everything. A lot of people have compared these technologies to electricity:you would never ask what industries are most impacted by electricity since everything depends on it. Past technological revolutions have caused disruption within industries, such as agriculture in the Industrial Revolution, but they didn’t cause systemic unemployment throughout the whole economy because people were able to move to other sectors; they moved to factories first, and later on, they moved to the service sector.  But with artificial intelligence, everything is going toget hit simultaneously across the board. Clearly there are going tobe new things, but what is going tocome up that could create jobs for tens of millions of people? Something on that scale is really quite hard to imagine. 

“Some jobs done by people with more education may actually be more susceptible than low-wage jobs done by people with almost no education.”

BT: The second issue you focus on is that new approaches are necessary to deal with these problems, that we can’t reuse old tools. Could you elaborate on that?

Ford: The only tool that we have historically to adapt to these changes is education. You retrain workers, you send more people to college, you increase the education level of people so that they can hopefully move up the skills ladder and do more elaborate work. And that worked really well when automation was primarily about mechanization? Education shifted people away from doing manual labor to doing more cognitive tasks. But now, machines are moving into those cognitive areas. There are plenty of examples that I give in my book, and you can read about it in the news every day: journalists, lawyers and radiologists; these are obviously jobs that you need a college degree for. And yet, they’re being threatened. So, my whole thesis is that education won’t be enough.  There will likely be an income distribution problem; a lot of people will be left without marketable skills. So, we have to figure out something else, and that’s why I talk about basic income as a viable alternative.

BT: Do you think that universal based income is an efficient primary policy or are there also other major policy initiatives that we need to implement?

Ford: I think that it can be the basis for building a sustainable future. The most important problem you’ve got to solve is the income distribution problem. People need an income so they can survive economically, and they also need an income so they can spend money and help drive the economy. One can argue that we already see some of that around the world: there are a lot of developed countries already that have got very low growth rates. You’ve got to get income into the hands of the people at the middle and the bottom of the income distribution, or it’s going tobe harder and harder to really see the kind of growth that we’d like to see. I think a basic income is one good step towards that, although it’s currently not yet politically acceptable. There are some experiments being conducted in New Zealand, in the Netherlands, even here in Silicon Valley, where Y Combinator is privately funding an experiment. That’s the point we’re at right now, where it’s being tried on a small scale to gather data. 

Martin Ford's 2015 book on technology's influence on the future.

Martin Ford's 2015 book on technology's influence on the future.

The other thing I’ve argued in the book is that I think we could have a basic income with incentives built into it. I think we should have some minimal level that everyone should get no matter what,  but we should maybe pay people a little more if they do some basic important things, for example complete their education. Other possibilities include part-time community service or environmental work. That would also help solve the problem of what people are doing with their time if they’re working less. The idea hasn’t gotten a lot of traction yet; there are what you would call basic income purists, who absolutely think it should be unconditional... it’s almost like a religion to them. I think that’s a mistake - we should think of ways to improve on that idea, to make it not just better in terms of the way it functions, but also politically more acceptable to people who are more conservative. 

BT: Your main focus is automation from AI and robotics. Do you think there are any other emerging technologies that will also play an equally disruptive role? 

Ford: Well, I think a lot about virtual reality. Eventually people will be able to enter environments that approach realism. That could be a technological drug; people might drop out of their ordinary lives. And, of course, that can also tie into inequality - as people begin to lose faith in the idea that they could have a great future in the real world, and at the same time there’s this alternative, where you can enter this virtual world and very cheaply be anything and do anything you want. Inequality and virtual reality could go hand to hand and create a real problem. Unfortunately, a basic income could enable that even more, so that’s another aspect to be cognizant of.

BT: How did you go from a computer engineering undergraduate degree to where you are now, a best-selling author on the future of automation? 

Ford: I studied computer engineering and worked in engineering for four years, and I enjoyed that, but I wanted to do something broader, so I went back and got an MBA at UCLA. I ended up doing a finance job in a high tech company, which was very boring. The company was going downhill, so I was laid off after 6 months, and decided I wasn’t going back to look for a job. I started a small software company. Even in that small business I began to see the impact of technology. I came to the conclusion that this would eventually scale across everything. That’s what got me thinking about the issue and led me to write my first book back in 2009, “The Lights in The Tunnel”. The book did well enough over a five-year period that it led to the opportunity to write the second book, which was more of a real book, and that got a lot more exposure. 

It wasn’t an easy process. When I uploaded that first book on Amazon, no one knew about it. I sold five copies in the first month. I had to do a lot of marketing over several years before the book began to get some attention. There were articles in the press that mentioned it, and it began to sell better, and that eventually got to a point where I leveraged that into developing a proposal for the second book. 

BT: What’s most exciting about it all for you? What gets you up in the morning?

Ford: AI has tremendous potential, and we see some of that already. One of the areas that everyone talks about is health care. A lot of things that are important, in terms of medical diagnosis, we can migrate into an AI system. This could lead to another class of professionals: people that have only a four-year college degree could work as the front end of an AI system and do a lot of what doctors do today. This won’t include everything, but tasks such as managing chronic diseases can become a lot more affordable and less of a burden on our healthcare system. In the future, no matter what doctor you go to, it will be like you’re going to the very best doctor in terms of that person’s ability to make a diagnosis and design a treatment plan because they’ll have access to these intelligent tools. 

BT: How should undergraduates choose careers given that most jobs will be automated? Should we all become programmers now?

Ford: First off, definitely don’t all become programmers, because programming is one of the things on the list that can be automated. There’s nothing wrong with being a software engineer, if that’s something you want to do, but you’d better be good at it and work at a very high level. You want to be one of the best people. Just having average routine skills in software or programming is not going to be a defense. That’s probably one of the biggest misconceptions that people have - that if you learn to program a computer, you have nothing to worry about. That’s just not going to be true at all. 

In general - and this is kind of a stock answer, almost a cliché - the areas where you’re going be safest are number one, if you’re doing something creative, if you’re generating or building something new. This might be in science, it might be in engineering, it might be in the arts; as long as it’s coming up with something that didn’t exist before. Having said that, though, there definitely is research into the field of computing creativity. There are algorithms that have developed original symphonies and painted original works of art, so you can never say never. 

The other areas that are really important are ones that involve deep interactions or relationships with people, and that might be a caring-type role, like a nurse or a doctor, or in the business world, it might be the kind of role where you build deep relationships with clients. And again, in those areas too, the technology is progressing, I know there’s already work on chatbots that can do basic counseling. So again you can never say never, but I think that’s going tobe relatively safe in the future. 

And then the third area is fields that require mobility and dexterity. Things like electricians and plumbers and auto mechanics, it’s really hard to build a robot that can do those things. 

The problem in general for college graduates is they want knowledge jobs, information jobs, the kind of jobs where you are sitting in front of a computer, manipulating information. And if you’re doing that, in a relatively routine way, that’s going tobe highly susceptible to automation. 

So, this is one of the paradoxes. Some jobs done by people with more education may actually be more susceptible than low-wage jobs done by people with almost no education. The best advice I could give to anyone in college is: could another person watch you work and figure out how to do your job, or could another person study everything that you’ve done in the past and figure out how to do your job? If so, that job is probably susceptible to automation. So, don’t make a big investment in training to do that job, make another choice. 

BT: To take it a step further, for someone who would want to be involved with directly helping realize the potential of AI and avoiding its negative impacts, what would be your advice?

Ford: There are a number of fields that are going to intercept with that, if you’re really technical. If you are, then, by all means, study artificial intelligence and be one of the people driving this. Other fields can also have an impact, though. There’s a lot of work for economists to work on the details of how we respond to this, looking at concepts like basic income. So, you can definitely have a career in economics and be thinking about these issues. I think there’s quite a range of other professions through which one can have an impact.‌ ﹥