Unscripted: Science and Engineering Research

Rise of the Robots: Interview with Martin Ford

By Allison Mills | Published

Truck drivers. Cashiers. Accountants. Automation is starting to replace human brains as well as brawn. Author Martin Ford is on a mission to let people know about it.

The idea is simple: as machines improve, so does their ability to take over repetitive, data-based tasks. Even though robots—and robot uprisings—have long been a part of the popular imagination, the current acceleration of artificial intelligence tech is leaving the realm of sci fi and becoming part of everyday life.

Ford, author of Rise of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of a Jobless Future, talked with science writer Allison Mills after his student and faculty presentations this past Saturday. Ford says the two most common questions he gets are, "Will I lose my job?" and "How will this affect my kids and their future employment?" Both questions, he says, show that there's more at stake than numbers and tech development. He took some time to answer some Michigan Tech questions, too.

AM: So you're a futurist. What does that mean?

MF: Being a futurist means that I think about the future. I think we're going to face some challenges in the future that people aren't anticipating yet, and so I've taken it on myself to really start to think about those issues and hopefully bring some more attention to these issues. For example, if we do see a big disruption in the job market, then we need to plan ahead for that.

AM: Sci fi and popular media portray a sometimes frightening world overrun by AI, and a 2013 study from Oxford found that 47 percent of US jobs are susceptible to automation. Should people be afraid?

MF: We should be concerned and interested and focused on the challenges we're going to face. As you said, the movies and the books tend to be dystopian—and it's about Terminators and AI killing people. Even now, there are people raising those concerns—both Elon Musk and Stephen Hawking have talked about that. So, it's easy to dismiss that idea as being silly and being science fiction. But I wouldn't completely dismiss it—what I would say is that those concerns lie far in the future. 

What I'm focused on are trends we're likely to see within the next 10 to 20 years. And that's much more about economic change as algorithms and machines take over jobs and it comes with a lot of issues related to privacy, security and whether these systems are vulnerable to cyberattacks. There are enormous and numerous challenges that are significant. Definitely it's not about being frightened, it's about being aware and concerned and invested in these issues.

AM: What then are the moral and ethical responsibilities of researchers developing AI technologies?

MF: Researchers need to ask some hard questions about the social and economic impacts of their work. Can this tech take over a job? Is the system transparent? Does this algorithm have bias? Especially with bias and with issues like racism, the bias is in the data—it's not in the algorithm—and then the algorithm comes and learns from that biased data and it propagates into the results. Researchers do need to be aware of those issues and also aware that many technologies will be used in security and military applications; they could be leveraged by authoritarian states to control their populations and so forth.

That is not to say that it's all the responsibility of the researchers. But I think that the people researching these technologies are the ones who know these technologies the best and do have a responsibility to reach out to policymakers who are perhaps in a position to help regulate these technologies. The understanding exists that people will have to educate others who don't have that technical knowledge.

"Don't be hidden away in your laboratory, working on a project and not thinking at all about the impacts, because you could be creating something that has potential to be disruptive. And you are the person who understands that technology the best, so you clearly have a role to play."

AM: How about in higher ed—what do you think the impact of automation will be?

MF: I think we'll ultimately see a shift to more online education as the tools of AI are brought to bear on those areas. And for professors, maybe it will free them up from teaching big lectures; they might have more time to engage in research or engage with students on an individual level. I think there are many areas that are going to be positive with AI while some are going to be more challenging than others.

AM: We still need human brainpower for some tasks; what can people do that robots can't?

MF: There are three areas that are least vulnerable to automation: true creativity—like artists and architects; deep human relationships that require empathy and care—like nursing; highly skilled trades that require education—like electricians.

There is some gray area and robots are performing tasks we thought they never could. People are already working on robots that can paint or write a symphony. In health care, a nurse who is running around dealing with patients—to build a robot that can do that is still science fiction, for sure. But there are certain specialized robots that can help, like a robot that can lift patients or monitor them.

Not everyone agrees that automation is going to be disruptive either. Some economists say that human jobs won't be impacted because people always learn to adapt. I would argue that we have to prepare in order to adapt.  

AM: You talk about access to education and providing a basic income as two ways to mitigate economic trouble.

MF: The two go hand-in-hand. The first step is to provide a basic income to make sure that we provide a safety net for everyone and don't penalize people who want to do more. Within that, I'd even consider building in incentives for people to become more educated. For example, we pay people who graduate from high school a little more than people who drop out of high school, otherwise we might get into a scenario where people give up if they think they can get an income—and we don't want that. 

It is important to continue to invest in education. In the future, a lot of that will be online and robotic education with systems that can work with people at their own rate and help them learn individually is going to be positive. And we want to create plenty of opportunities for people who want to learn to work with these technologies and continue to be relevant. It's crucial to recognize, though, that some people are probably going to get left behind as machines and algorithms take over more routine work, which is where basic income comes back in to ensure that we have an essential safety net.

Many people think this all sounds pessimistic and dystopian—and I would say that's not the case and we need to remember that technological progress has always been optimistic for humans. It's the reason that a middle-class person in any country today lives better than a rich person a century ago. We want to continue that progress to benefit everyone in society, not just a few at the top.

Michigan Technological University is a public research university, home to more than 7,000 students from 60 countries around the world. Founded in 1885, the University offers more than 120 undergraduate and graduate degree programs in science and technology, engineering, forestry, business and economics, health professions, humanities, mathematics, and social sciences. Our beautiful campus in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula overlooks the Keweenaw Waterway and is just a few miles from Lake Superior.