The Robot in the Room: Does Work have a Future?

Many of us have been following a variety of press comment on the useful Pew report on the attitudes of “experts” to the Big Question: Will robotics destroy more jobs than it creates? Since the “experts” were split almost exactly down the middle, expertise in this and related fields would seem to provide no clear wisdom on the fundamental question. And that question of course goes way, way beyond there being a net deficit of job creation. If robotics does not result in a whole slew of new jobs, and jobs that can be done by the kind of people who are around, it is likely to destroy much of the employment economy.

There are many reasons why we should see this as an uprecedented situation, at root because in robotics we are creating not adjunct tools to facilitate human productivity but a fresh species of worker.

What is clear is this: From a risk perspective, the implications of one half of the experts being correct are cataclysmic, and should be preoccupying policymakers night and day. But they aren’t.

I raised some hard questions on this theme in my recent TEDx talk in Brazil. And I plan to keep coming back to them.

5 stories that make me worry about whether the future has jobs

The seal of the United States Department of Labor

The seal of the United States Department of Labor (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Kurzweil, Krulwich and Ptolemy

Kurzweil, Krulwich and Ptolemy (Photo credit: Daniel Williams)

English: PR2 Robot at Willow Garage in Menlo P...

English: PR2 Robot at Willow Garage in Menlo Park (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Five quick stories

1. I sat down for lunch a few months back on a sunny Silicon Valley day in Menlo Park with two partners from a global law firm who work with clients in the Valley. There were various things on my mind – Washington/Valley issues, potential collaborators for my nonprofit, the weather and the wine. But that was not the conversation. What they wanted to talk about was, as one put it, When are we going to come up with innovations that create jobs rather than destroy them? You could have knocked me down with a chip.

2. Fast rewind to one of those excellent Singularity Institute conferences that the Kurzweil-inspired network hosts. They are usually on the west coast; I think the one I am recalling was in San Jose. Early on the program was Marshall Brain, founder of famed website How Stuff Works. He threw up on the screen that Department of Labor job classification form we all know, and went down the list. In his view, around 50% of the jobs in the U.S. economy could be destroyed by robots. He was heckled.

3. Fast sideways to a visit a year or so later to the OECD in Paris, where I sat down with one of their top S and T officials and discovered he had just returned from a visit to Japan. Japan, where the plan is for retirees to get a pension – and a humanoid robot, as nursing aid and companion.

4. Then, in this journey through space and time, to Washington, DC, which as some of you will know is the U.S. federal capital where allegedly responsibility is taken for key dimensions of our future well-being. A top official of the Dept of Labor assured me there was no-one on the team focused on the AI/human robotics/employment issue.

5. Some time later I was on the phone to AFL/CIO. Same there. In the case of the labor unions, I suggested everyone consider stopping whatever else they were doing and work on this issue instead . . ..

Five stories. They do not amount to an argument, and if anyone has just loaded with “Luddite” please sit down.

I know that disruptions have happened before, though the nature of our Moore’s Law experience is that they are now getting very fast and disruptive at increasingly fundamental levels (reflect on the rapidity with which such smart enterprises as RIM and Nokia have come close to collapse). I do not know how fast our economy can innovate its way into the development of huge slews of jobs which have been taken out, class by class, through the advance of digital into the higher echelons of AI and robotics.

What I do know are three things: This issue is huge. Almost entirely unexamined. And urgent.

Here’s a neat piece from Vivek @wadhwa, one of our most provocative and smart thought-leaders, arguing that in China robotics is set to destroy manufacturing and enable us to repatriate what we have outsourced. Yet to the extent that this is true, what follows for this nation? Just asking . . ..

My convo with Vivek about innovation:

My Napa panel with Vivek and others on U.S. competitiveness:

The End of Chinese Manufacturing and Rebirth of U.S. Industry – Forbes.