In a phone interview Tuesday, Ford emphasized that the pace of technological change is a much bigger force for disruption than globalization – yet it’s the latter that generates the ink and the fears. It’s wrong to think that only less-skilled workers are at risk, Ford adds; it’s much easier to automate a radiologist’s job than a housekeeper’s. For this reason, the idea that the policy answer is “education and training” strikes him as self-evidently flawed. Yet less-skilled workers will have no haven either, as Foxconn’s recent order of
1 million robots
for its low-wage Chinese factories proves.
In the end, Ford says, if something like the scenario he sketches comes to pass, capitalism’s salvation will require that mass consumption not depend on income from work. What does that mean exactly? It means government redistribution on a scale that today seems as unthinkable as does the economy-wide automation of jobs he foresees.
Is Ford’s scenario worth losing sleep over? Clearly it’s not imminent, as Lawrence Summers, former economic adviser to President Obama, pointed out in an interview, because if we were in the situation Ford describes, productivity (i.e., output per human worker) would be rising dramatically, and it’s not. Economist Erik Brynjolfsson at MIT, co-author of “Race Against The Machine,” is looking at the same trends with a more hopeful sense of our prospects. Yet Jaron Lanier, who helped create virtual reality in the 1980s, and who authored the culture of technology critique, “You Are Not A Gadget,” has an important book coming out this spring that will raise deep questions about technology’s threat to the middle class. The New York Times’ Paul Krugman, meanwhile, has tiptoed toward these questions (and the distributional issues they raise) in a few recent commentaries.
As for me? When I hear Kurzweil talk about the Singularity, I think, boy, if he’s right — and we’re going to essentially merge with machines and transcend human biology a few decades from now – what do I tell my 15-year-old daughter about how to live?
I feel the same way about Ford’s vision. It’s important to consider. And unsettling. I’m not sure what the odds are. I see signs out there that make me worry we’re heading toward something like what he sees. And I’d like more top technologists and economists to do some hard thinking together about it now. Over to you, Paul Krugman.
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