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Pethokoukis Podcast: Will the robots take our jobs? A Q&A with Martin Ford

Smart machines — call them drones, autonomous vehicles, algorithms, or robots — have the potential to dramatically alter job markets everywhere. Or,  rather, keep altering them since the these changes are already happening.

I’ve written about this repeatedly (see posts here, here, here, and here.) But for more answers, we turn to Martin Ford, software developer, entrepreneur, and Silicon Valley-based author of The New York Times Bestselling Rise of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of a Jobless Future and The Lights in the Tunnel: Automation, Accelerating Technology and the Economy of the Future. He has a degree in a computer engineering from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor and a graduate business degree from the UCLA.

Shutterstock.

Shutterstock.

Here are some edited excerpts from our conversation via my podcast at Ricochet:

James Pethokoukis: There’s a lot of economic reports saying that US productivity and innovation isn’t what it used to be. Can we worry about a technological slowdown at the same time we’re worried about robots becoming smarter and more capable and taking all of the jobs? 

Martin Ford:  Well, I think we can. I mean, the interesting thing that’s happened, I think, over the last 30 years or so is that all of the progress has really focused in the information technology arena.  I’m sure anyone who’s around my age remembers, the days when we anticipated advances in the space program and we thought there would be all this amazing stuff in the future, flying cars and all of that. And of course, most of that stuff has really turned out to be kind of a disappointment, except in information technology. If you think back to “Star Trek,” we don’t have any of that stuff, but we do have the communicator and we’re getting to the point where we may have the computer.

So what that implies, I think, and I think part of our problem is that all of that information technology is really having an impact on job markets. And one thing this is doing is it is making things less labor intensive, and that’s beginning to show up in some of the statistics, for example, in stagnant wages and so forth.

Is [technology] accelerating? How much should we be concerned about automation? Even if [there is acceleration] in information technology, shouldn’t that be reflected in statistics like productivity? If machines can do more, whether literally talking about robots or talking about software, if machines can do more and they are replacing people, shouldn’t we also be getting more productive that way? How come we don’t see any of this advanced robotics in productivity statistics? Or are we just missing something?

Well, I – you know, that’s something of a paradox and I think a lot of economists have been asking that question. There are a couple of theories out there. One, of course, is that there is a lag between the time that the technology comes online and whether businesses are able to really assimilate that and whether it shows up in the statistics. And of course, we did see rising productivity earlier in this century and now it has sort of petered out. So perhaps it kind of goes in bursts, perhaps.

You know, right now, you’re seeing some really remarkable advances on the technical side, in areas like artificial intelligence and what’s called deep learning or machine learning. And the question is, is that going to show up in the productivity? And I suspect that it will. Perhaps there will be something of a lag.

Another issue that I talk about that the economists don’t focus on too much is that, you know, productivity is tied to output. I mean, productivity, essentially, is the value of what we produce divided by the number of hours to produce it. And people tend to, when they talk about the robots, they focus just on the hours worked. In other words, they focus on the denominator of the productivity expression. And they assume that once the robots come online, the number of hours worked is going to fall and productivity should sore.

But you know, there is also an impact on the output, on demand. If there are fewer people out there that really have the income and the purchasing power to drive the economy and to create sufficient demand, then we may actually produce less than we might optimally. And that also could influence productivity.

So there is clearly a feedback loop there. If you automate some of the jobs, you can’t assume that productivity is just going to soar because that doesn’t happen in isolation. We only produce things in response to market demand. So if automation actually kills off some of that demand, then, the impact may be a little less clear than what most people expect. (more…)

Source: New AEI Feed
Pethokoukis Podcast: Will the robots take our jobs? A Q&A with Martin Ford






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