In this episode Byron and Martin talk about the future of jobs, AGI, consciousness and more.
Martin Ford is a futurist and the author of 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 translated into more than 20 languages) 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 an MBA degree from the University of California, Los Angeles. He has written about the implications for future technology for publications including The New York Times, Fortune, Forbes, Harvard Business Review, The Financial Times, The Atlantic, The Washington Post and The Guardian He has also appeared on numerous radio and television shows, including NPR and CNBC, CNN, Fox Business 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.
Byron Reese: Welcome to Voices in AI, I’m Byron Reese. Today we’re delighted to have as our guest Martin Ford. Martin Ford is a well-known futurist, and he has two incredibly notable books out. The most recent one is called The Rise of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of a Jobless Future, and the second one is The Lights in the Tunnel: Automation Accelerating Technology and the Economy of the Future.
I have read them both cover-to-cover, and Martin is second-to-none in coming up with original ideas and envisioning a kind of future. What is that future that you envision, Martin?
Martin Ford: Well, I do believe that artificial intelligence and robotics is going to have a dramatic impact on the job market. I’m one of those that believes that this time is different, relative to what we’ve seen in the past, and that, therefore, we probably are going to find a way to adapt to that.
I do see a future where there certainly is potential for significant unemployment, and even if that doesn’t develop, at a minimum we’re probably going to have underemployment and a continuation of stagnant wages, maybe even declining wages, and probably soaring inequality. And all of those things are just going to put an enormous amount of stress both on society and on the economy, and I think that’s going to be one of the biggest issues we need to think about over the next few decades.
So, taking a big step back, you said, quote: “This time is different.” And that’s obviously a reference to the oft-cited argument that we’ve heard this since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, that machines were going to advance too quickly, and people weren’t going to be able to find new skills.
And I think everybody agrees, up to now, it’s been fantastically false, but your argument that this time is different is based on what? What exactly is different?
Well, the key is that the machines, in a limited sense, are beginning to think. I mean, they’re taking on cognitive capabilities. So what that means is that technology is finally encroaching on that fundamental capability that so far has allowed us to really stay ahead of the march of progress, and remain relevant.
I mean, you can ask the question, “Why are there still so many jobs? Why don’t we have unemployment already?” And surely the answer to that is our ability to learn and to adapt. To find new things to do. And yet, we’re now at a point where machines… especially in the form of machine learning, are beginning to move into that space.
And it’s going to, I think, eventually get to what you might think of as a kind of a tipping point, or an inflection point, where technology begins to outcompete a lot of people, in terms of their basic capability to really contribute to the economy.
No one is saying that all the jobs are going to disappear, and that there’s literally going to be no one working. But, I think it’s reasonable to be concerned that a significant fraction of our workforce—in particular those people that are perhaps best-equipped to do things that are fundamentally routine and repetitive and predictable—those people are probably going to have a harder and harder time adapting to this, and finding a foothold in the economy.
But, specifically, why do you think that? Give me a case-in-point. Because we’ve seen enormous, disruptive technologies on par with AI, right? Like, the harnessing of artificial power has to be up there with artificial intelligence. We’ve seen entire categories of jobs vanish. We’ve seen technology replace any number of people already.
And yet, unemployment, with the exception of the depression, never gets out from between four and nine percent in this country. What holds it in that stasis, and why? I still kind of want more meat on that, why this time is different. Because everything kind of hinges on that.
Well, I think that historically, we’ve seen primarily technology displacing muscle power. That’s been the case up until recently. Now, you talk about harnessing power… Obviously that did displace a lot of people doing manual labor, but people were able to move into more cognitively-oriented tasks.
Even if it was a manual job, it was one that required more brain power. But now, machines are encroaching on that as well. Clearly, we see many examples of that. There are algorithms that can do a lot of the things that journalists do, in terms of generating news stories. There are algorithms beginning to take on tasks done by lawyers, and radiologists, and so forth.
The most dramatic example perhaps I’ve seen is what DeepMind did with its AlphaGo system, where it was able to build a system that taught itself to play the ancient game of Go, and eventually became superhuman at that, and was able to beat the best players in the world.
And to me, I would’ve looked at that and I would’ve said, “If there’s any task out there that is uniquely human, and ought to be protected from automation, playing the game of Go—given the sophistication of the game—really, should probably be on that list.” But it’s fallen to the machines already.
So, I do think that when you really look at this focus on cognitive capability, on the fact that the machines are beginning to move into that space which so far has protected people… that, as we look forward—again, I’m not talking about next year, or three years from now even, but I’m thinking in terms of decades, ten years from now, twenty years from now—what’s it going to look like as these technologies continue to accelerate?
It does seem to me that there’s very likely to be a disruption.
So, if you’d been alive in the Industrial Revolution, and somebody said, “Oh, the farm jobs, they’re vanishing because of technology. There’s going to be less people employed in the farm industry in the future.” And then, wouldn’t somebody have asked the question, “Well, what are all those people going to do? Like, all they really know how to do are plant seeds.”
All the things they ended up doing were things that by-and-large didn’t exist at the time. So isn’t it the case that whatever the machines can do, humans figure out ways to use those skills to make jobs that are higher in productivity than the ones that they’re replacing?
Yeah, I think what you’re saying is absolutely correct. The question though, is… I’m not questioning that some of those jobs are going to exist. The question is, are there going to be enough of those jobs, and will those jobs be accessible to average people in our population?
Now, the example you are giving with agriculture is the classic one that everyone always cites, and here’s what I would say: Yes, you’re right. Those jobs did disappear, and maybe people didn’t anticipate what the new things were going to be. But it turned out that there was the whole rest of the economy out there to absorb those workers.
Agricultural machinery, tractors and combines and all the rest of it, was a specific mechanical technology that had a dramatic impact on one sector of the economy. And then those workers eventually moved to other sectors, and as they moved from sector to sector… first they moved from agriculture to manufacturing, and that was a transition. It wasn’t instant, it took some time.
But basically, what they were doing was moving from routine work in the field to, fundamentally, routine work in factories. And that may have taken some training and some adaptation, but it was something that basically involved moving from one routine to another routine thing. And then, of course, there was another transition that came later, as manufacturing also automated or offshored, and now everyone works in the service sector.
But still, most people, at least a very large percentage of people, are still doing things that are fundamentally routine and repetitive. A hundred years ago, you might’ve been doing routine work in the field, in the 1950s maybe you were doing routine work in a factory, now you’re scanning barcodes at Wal-Mart, or you’re stocking the shelves at Wal-Mart, or you’re doing some other relatively routine thing.
The point I’m making is that in the future, technology is going to basically consume all of that routine, repetitive, predictable work… And that there still will be things left, yes, but there will be more creative work, or it’ll be work that involves, perhaps, deep interaction with other people and so forth, that really are going to require a different skill set.
So it’s not the same kind of transition that we’ve seen in the past. It’s really more of, I think, a dramatic transition, where people, if they want to remain relevant, are going to have to really have an entirely different set of capabilities.
So, what I’m saying is that a significant fraction of our workforce is going to have a really hard time adapting to that. Even if the jobs are there, if there are sufficient jobs out there, they may not be a good match for a lot of people who are doing routine things right now.
Have you tried to put any sort of, even in your own head, any kind of model around this, like how much unemployment, or at what rate you think the economy will shed jobs, or what sort of timing, or anything like that?
I make guesses at it. Of course, there are some relatively high-profile studies that have been done, and I personally believe that you should take that with a grain of salt. The most famous one was the one done back in 2013, by a couple of guys at Oxford.
Which is arguably the most misquoted study on the thing.
Exactly, because what they said was that roughly forty-seven percent—which is a remarkably precise number, obviously—roughly half the jobs in the United States are going to be susceptible, could be automated, within the next couple of decades.
I thought what it says is that forty-seven percent of the things that people do in their jobs is able to be automated.
Yeah, this particular study, they did look at actual jobs. But the key point is that they said roughly half of those jobs could be automated, they didn’t say they will be automated. And when the press picked that up, it in some cases became “half the jobs are definitely going to go away.” There was another later study, which you may be referring to, [that] was done by McKinsey, and that one did look at tasks, not at jobs.
And they came up with approximately the same number. They came up with the idea that about half of the tasks within jobs would be susceptible to automation, or in some cases may already be able to be automated in theory… but that was looking at the task level. Now again, the press kind of looked at that and they took a very optimistic take on it. They said, “Well, your whole job then can’t be automated, only half of your job can be automated. So your employer’s going to leave you there to do higher-level stuff.” And in some cases, that may happen.
But the other alternative, of course, is that if you’ve got two people doing two jobs, and half of each of those can be automated, then we could well see a consolidation there, and maybe that just becomes one job, right? So, different studies have looked at it in different ways. Again, I would take all of these studies with some skepticism, because I don’t think anyone can really make predictions this precise.
But the main takeaway from it, I think, is that the amount of work that is going to be susceptible to automation could be very significant. And I would say, to my mind, it doesn’t make much difference whether it’s twenty percent of fifty percent. Those are both staggering numbers. They would both have a dramatic impact on society and on the economy. So regardless of what the exact figure is, it’s something that we need to think about.
In terms of timing, I tend to think in terms of between ten and twenty years as being the timeframe where this becomes kind of unambiguous, where we’ve clearly reached the point where we’re not going to have this debate anymore—where everyone agrees that this is an issue.
I tend to think ten to twenty years, but I certainly know people that are involved, for example, in machine learning, that are much more aggressive than that; and they say it could be five years. So that is something of a guess, but I do think that there are good reasons to be concerned that the disruption is coming.
The other thing I would say is that, even if I turn to be wrong about that, and it doesn’t happen within ten to twenty years, it probably is going to happen within fifty years. It seems inevitable to me at some point.
So, you talk about not having the debate anymore. And I think one of the most intriguing aspects of quote, ‘the debate’, is that when you talk to self-identified futurists, or when you talk to economists on the effect technology is going to have on jobs, they’re almost always remarkably split.
So you’ve got this camp of fifty percent-ish that says, “Oh, come on, this is ridiculous. There is no finite number of jobs. Anytime a person can pick up something and add value to it, they’ve just created a job. We want to get people out of tasks that machines can do, because they’re capable of doing more things,” and so forth.
So you get that whole camp, and then you have the side which, it sounds you’re more on, which is, “No, there’s a point at which the machines are able to improve faster than people are able to train,” and that that’s kind of an escape philosophy, and that has those repercussions. So all of that is a buildup to the question… like, these are two very different views of the future that people who think a lot about this have.
What assumptions do the two camps have, underneath their beliefs, that are making them so different, in your mind?
Right, I do think you’re right. It’s just an extraordinary range of opinion. I would say it’s even broader than that. You’re talking about the issue of whether or not jobs will be automated, but, on the same spectrum, I’m sure you can find famous economists, maybe economists with Nobel Prizes that would tell you, “This is all a kind of a silly issue. It’s repetition of the Luddite fears that we’ve had basically forever and nothing is different this time.”
And then at the other end of that spectrum you’ve got people not just talking about jobs, you’ve got Elon Musk and you’ve got Stephen Hawking saying, “It’s not even an issue of machines taking our jobs. They’re going to just take over. They might threaten us, be an existential threat, that might actually become super-intelligent and decide they don’t want us around.
So that’s just an incredible range of opinions on this issue, and I guess it points to the fact that it really is just extraordinarily unpredictable, in the sense that we really don’t know what’s going to happen with artificial intelligence.
Now, my view is that I do think that there is often a kind of a line you can draw. The people that tend to be more skeptical, maybe, are more geared toward being economists, and they do tend to put an enormous amount of weight on that historical record, and on the fact that, so far, this has not happened. And they give great weight to that.
The people that are more on my side of it, and see something different happening, tend to be people more on the technology side, that are involved deeply in machine learning and so forth, and really see how this technology is going.
I think that they maybe have a sense that something dramatic is really going to happen. That’s not a clear division, but it’s my sense that it kind of breaks down that way in many cases. But, for sure, I absolutely have a lot of respect for the people that disagree with me. This is a very meaningful, important debate, with a lot of different perspectives, and I think it’s going to be really, really fascinating to see how it plays out.
So, you touched on the existential threat of artificial intelligence. Let me just start with a couple of questions: Do you believe that an AGI, a general intelligence, is possible?
Yes, I don’t know of any reason that it’s not possible.
That doesn’t mean I think it will happen, but I think it’s certainly possible.
And then, if it’s possible, everybody, you know… When you line up everybody’s prediction on when, they range from five years to five hundred years, which is also a telling thing. Where are you in that?
I’m not a true expert in this area, because I’m obviously not doing that research. But based on the people I’ve talked to that are in the field, I would put it further out than maybe most people. I think of it as being probably fifty years out… would be a guess, at least, and quite possibly more than that.
I am open to the possibility that I could be wrong about that, and it could be sooner. But it’s hard for me to imagine it sooner than maybe twenty-five to thirty years. But again, this is just extraordinarily unpredictable. Maybe there’s some project going on right now that we don’t know about that is going to prove something much sooner. But my sense is that it’s pretty far out—measured in terms of decades.
And do you believe computers can become conscious?
I believe it’s possible. What I would say is that the human brain is a biological machine. That’s what I believe. And I see absolutely no reason why the experience of the human mind, as it exists within the brain, can’t be replicated in some other medium, whether it’s silicon or quantum computing or whatever.
I don’t see why consciousness is something that is restricted, in principle, to a biological brain.
So I assume, then, it’s fair to say that you hope you’re wrong?
Well, I don’t know about that. I definitely am concerned about the more dystopian outcomes. I don’t dismiss those concerns, I think they’re real. I’m kind of agnostic on that; I don’t see that it’s definitely the case that we’re going to have a bad outcome if we do have conscious, super-intelligent machines. But it’s a risk.
But I also see it as something that’s inevitable. I don’t think we can stop it. So probably the best strategy is to begin thinking about that. And what I would say is that the issue that I’m focused on, which is what’s going to happen to the job market, is much more immediate. That’s something that is happening within the next ten to twenty years.
This other issue of super-intelligence and conscious machines is another important issue that’s, I think, a bit further out, but it’s also a real challenge that we should be thinking about it. And for that reason, I think that it’s great that people like Elon Musk are making investments there, in think tanks and so forth, and they’re beginning to focus on that.
I think it would be pretty hard to justify a big government public expenditure on thinking about this issue at this point in time, so it’s great that some people are focused on that.
And, so, I’m sure you get this question that I get all the time, which is, “I have young children. What should they study today to make sure that they have a relevant, useful job in the future?” You get that question?
Oh, I get that question. Yeah, it’s probably the most common question I get.
Yeah, me too. What do you say?
I probably am going to bet that I say something very similar to what you say, because I think the answer is almost a cliché. It’s that first and foremost, avoid studying to prepare yourself for a job that is on some level routine, repetitive, or predictable. Instead, you want to be, for example, doing something creative, where you’re building something genuinely new.
Or, you want to be doing something that really involves deep interaction with other people, that has that human element to it. For example, in the business world that might be building very sophisticated relationships with clients. A great job that I think is going to be relatively safe for the foreseeable future is nursing, because it has that human element to it, where you’re building relationships with people, and then there’s also a tremendous amount of dexterity, mobility, where you’re running around, doing lots of things.
That’s the other aspect of it, is that a lot of jobs that require that kind of dexterity, mobility, flexibility, are going to be hard to automate in the foreseeable future—things like electricians and plumbers and so forth are going to be relatively safe, I think. But of course, those aren’t necessarily jobs that people going to universities want to take.
So, prepare for something that incorporates those aspects. Creativity and human element, and maybe something beyond sitting in front of a computer, right? Because that in itself is going to be fairly susceptible to this.
So, let’s do a scenario here. Let’s say you’re right, and in fifteen years’ time—to take kind of your midpoint—we have enough job loss that is, say, commensurate with the Great Depression. So, that would be twenty-two percent. And it happens quickly… twenty-two percent of people are unemployed with few prospects. Tell me what you think happens in that world. Are there riots? What does the government do? Is there basic income? Like, what will happen?
Well, that’s going to be our choice. But the negative, let’s talk about the dystopian scenario first. Yes, I think there would absolutely be social unrest. You’re talking about people that in their lifetimes have experienced the middle-class lifestyle that are suddenly… I mean, everything just kind of disappears, right?
So, that’s certainly on the social side, there’s going to be enormous stress. And I would argue that we’re seeing the leading edge of that already. You ask yourself, why is Donald Trump in the Oval Office? Well, it’s because in part, at least, these blue-collar people, perhaps focused especially in the industrial Midwest, have this strong sense that they’ve been left behind.
And they may point to globalization or immigration as the reason for that. But in fact, technology has probably been the most important force in causing those people to no longer have access to the good, solid jobs that they once had. So, we see that already, [and] that could get orders of magnitude worse. So that’s on a social side and a political side.
Now, the other thing that’s happening is economic. We have a market economy, and that means that the whole economy relies on consumers that have got the purchasing power to go out and buy the stuff we’re producing, right?
Businesses need customers in order to thrive. This is true of virtually every business of any size, you need customers. In fact, if you really look at the industries that drive our economy, they’re almost invariably mass-market industries, whether it’s cars, or smartphones, or financial services. These are all industries that rely on tens, hundreds of millions of viable customers out there.
So, if people start losing their jobs and also their confidence… if they start worrying about the fact that they’re going to lose their jobs in the future, then they will start spending less, and that means we’re going to have an economic problem, right? We’re going to have potentially a deflationary scenario, where there’s simply not enough demand out there to drive the economy.
There’s also the potential for a financial crisis, obviously. Think back to 2008, what happened? How did that start? It started with the subprime crisis, where a lot of people did not have sufficient income to pay their mortgages.
So, obviously you can imagine a scenario in the future where lots of people can’t pay their mortgages, or their student loans, or their credit cards or whatever, and that has real implications for the financial sector. So no one should think that this is just about, “Well, it’s going to be some people that are less educated than I am, and they’re unlucky, too bad, but I’m going to be okay.”
No, I don’t think so. This is something that drags everyone into a major, major problem, both socially, politically, and economically.
The depression, though, it wasn’t notable for social unrest like that. There weren’t really riots.
There may not have been riots, but there was a genuine—in terms of the politics—there was a genuine fear out there that both democracy and capitalism were threatened. One of the most famous quotes comes from Joe Kennedy, who was the patriarch, the first Kennedy who made his money on Wall Street.
And he famously said, during that time, that he would gladly give up half of everything that he had if he could be certain that he’d get to keep the other half. Because there was genuine fear that there was going to be a revolution. Maybe a Communist revolution, something on that order, in the United States. So, it would be wrong to say that there was not this revolutionary fear out there.
Right. So, you said let’s start with the dystopian outcome…
Right, right… so, that’s the bad outcome. Now, if we do something about this, I think we can have a much more optimistic outcome. And the way to do that is going to be finding a way to decouple incomes from traditional forms of work. In other words, we’re going to have to find a way to make sure that people that aren’t working, and can’t find a regular job, have nonetheless got an income.
And there are two reasons to do that. The first reason is, obviously, that people have got to survive economically, and that addresses the social upheaval issue, to some extent at least. And the second issue is that people have got to have money to spend, if they’re going to be able to drive the economy. So, I personally think that some kind of a guaranteed minimum income, or a universal basic income, is probably going to be the way to go there.
Now there are lots of criticisms that people will say, “That’s paying people to be alive.” People will point out that if you just give money to people, that’s not going to solve the problem. Because people aren’t going to have any dignity, they’re not going to have any sense of fulfillment, or anything to occupy their time. They’re just going to take drugs, or be in a virtual reality environment.
And those are all legitimate concerns. Because, partly of those concerns, my view is that a basic income is not just this plug-and-play panacea that—okay, a basic income; that’s it. I think it’s a starting point. I think it’s the foundation that we can build on. And one thing that I’ve talked a lot about in my writing is the idea that we could build explicit incentives into a basic income.
Just to give an example, imagine that you are a struggling high school student. So, you’re in some difficult environment in high school, you’re really at risk of dropping out of school. Now, suppose you know that no matter what, you’re going to get the same basic income as everyone else. So, to me, that creates a very powerful perverse incentive for you to just drop out of school. To me that seems silly. We shouldn’t do that.
So, why not instead structure things a bit differently? Let’s say if you graduate from high school, then you’ll get a somewhat higher basic income than someone that just drops out. And we could take that idea of incentives and maybe extend it to other areas. Maybe if you go and work in the community, do things to help others, you’ll get a little bit higher basic income.
Or if you do things that are positive for the environment. You could extend it in many ways to incorporate incentives. And as you do that, then you take at least a few steps towards also solving that problem of, where do we find meaning and fulfillment and dignity in this world where maybe there just is less need for traditional work?
But that definitely is a problem that we need to solve, so I think we need to think creatively about that. How can we take a basic income and build it into something that is going to help us really solve some of these problems? And at the same time, as we do that, maybe we also take steps toward making a basic income more politically and socially acceptable and feasible. Because, obviously, right now it’s not politically feasible.
So, I think it’s really important to think in those terms: What can we really do to expand on this idea [of basic income]? But, if you figure that out, then you solve this problem, right? People then have an income, and then they have money to spend, and they can pay their debts and all the rest of it, and I think then it becomes much more positive.
If you think of the economy… think of not the real-world economy, but imagine it’s a simulation. And you’re doing this simulation of the whole market economy, and suddenly you tweak the simulation so that jobs begin to disappear. What could you do? Well, you could make a small fix to it so that you replace jobs with some other mechanism in this simulation, and then you could just keep the whole thing going.
You could continue to have thriving capitalism, a thriving market economy. I think when you think of it in those terms, as kind of a programmer tweaking a simulation, it’s not so hard to make it work. Obviously in the real world, given politics and everything, it’s going to be a lot harder, but my view is that it is a solvable problem.
Mark Cuban said the first trillionaires, or the first trillion-dollar companies, will be AI companies, that it has the capability of creating that kind of unmeasurable wealth. Would you agree with that?
Yeah, as long as we solve this problem. Again, it doesn’t matter whether you’re doing AI or any other business… that money is coming from somewhere, okay? Or when you talk about the way a company is valuated, whether it’s a million-dollar company or a trillion-dollar company, the value essentially comes from cash flows coming in in the future. That’s how you value a company.
Where are those cash flows coming [from]? Ultimately, they’re coming from consumers. They’re coming from people spending money, and people have to have money to spend. So, think of the economy as being kind of a virtuous cycle, where you cycle money from consumers to businesses and then back to consumers, and that it’s kind of a self-fulfilling, expanding, growing cycle over time.
The problem is that if the jobs go away, then that cycle is threatened, because that’s the mechanism that’s getting income back from producers to consumers so that the whole thing continues to be sustainable. So, we solve that problem and yeah, of course you’re going to have trillion-dollar companies.
And so, that’s the scenario if everything you say comes to pass. Take the opposite for just a minute. Say that fifteen years goes by, unemployment is five-and-a-quarter percent, and there’s been some turn of the jobs, and there’s no kind of phase shift, or paradigm shift, or anything like that. What would that mean?
Like, what does that mean long term for humanity? Do we just kind of go on in the way we are ad infinitum, or are there other things, other factors that could really upset the apple cart?
Well, again my argument would be that if that happens, and fifteen years from now things basically look the way they do now, then it means that people like me got the timing wrong. This isn’t really going to happen within fifteen years, maybe it’s going to be fifty years or a hundred years. But I still think it’s kind of inevitable.
The other thing, though, is be careful when you say fifteen years from now the unemployment rate is going to be five percent. One thing to be really careful about is that you’re measuring everything carefully, because, of course, the unemployment rate right now doesn’t catch a lot of people that are dropping out of the workforce.
In fact, it doesn’t capture anyone that drops out of the workforce, and we do have a declining labor force participation rate. So it’s possible for a lot of people to be left behind, and be disenfranchised, and still not be captured in that headline unemployment rate.
But a declining labor participation rate isn’t necessarily people who can’t find work, right? Like, if enough people just make a lot of money, and you’ve got the Baby Boomers retiring. Is it your impression that the numbers we’re seeing in labor participation are indicative of people getting discouraged and dropping out of the job market?
Yeah, to some extent. There are a number of things going on there. Obviously, as you say, part of it is the demographic shift, and there are two things happening there. One is that people are retiring; certainly, that’s part of it. The other thing is that people are staying in school longer, so younger people are less in the workforce than they might’ve been decades ago, because they’ve got to stay in school longer in order to have access to a job.
So, that’s certainly having an impact. But that doesn’t explain it totally, by any means. In fact, if you look at the labor force participation rate for what we call prime-age workers—and that would be people that are, maybe, between thirty and fifty… in other words, too old to be in school generally, and too young to retire—that’s also declining, especially for men. So, yes, there is definitely an impact from people leaving the workforce for whatever reason, very often [the reason is] being discouraged.
We’ve also seen a spike in applications for the social security disability program, which is what you’re supposed to get if you become disabled, and there really is no evidence that people are getting injured on the job at some extraordinarily new rate. So, I think many people think that people are using that as kind of a last resort basic income program.
They’re, in many cases, saying maybe they have a back injury that’s hard to verify and they’re getting onto that because they really just don’t have any other alternative. So, there definitely is something going on there, with that falling labor force participation rate.
And final question: What gives you the most hope, that whatever trials await us in the future—or do you have hope—that we’re going to get through them and go on to bigger and better things as a species?
Well, certainly the fact that we’ve always got through things in the past is some reason to be confident. We’ve faced enormous challenges of all kinds, including global wars, and plagues, and financial crises in the past and we’ve made it through. I think we can make it through this time. It doesn’t mean it will be easy. It rarely is easy.
There aren’t many cases in history, that we can point to, where we’ve just smoothly said, “Hey, look, there’s this problem coming at us. Let’s figure out what to do and adapt to it.” That rarely is the way it works. Generally, the way it works is that you get into a crisis, and eventually you end up solving the problem. And I suspect that that’s the way it will go this time. But, yeah, specifically, there are positive things that I see.
There are lots of important experiments, for example, with basic income, going on around the world. Even here in Silicon Valley, Y Combinator is doing something with an experiment with basic income that you may have heard about. So, I think that’s tremendously positive. That’s what we should be doing right now.
We should be gathering information about these solutions, and how exactly they’re going to work, so that we have the data that we’re going to need to maybe craft a much broader-based program at some point in the future. That’s all positive, you know? People are beginning to think seriously about these issues, and so I think that there is reason to be optimistic.
Okay, and real last question: If people want more of your thinking, do you have a website you suggest to go to?
The best place to go is my Twitter feed, which is @MFordFuture, and I also have a blog and a website which is the same, MFordFuture.com.
And are you working on anything new?
I am not working right now on a new book, but I go around doing a lot of speaking engagements on this. I’m on the board of directors of a startup company, which is actually doing something quite different. It’s actually going to do atmospheric water generation. In other words, generating water directly from air.
That’s a company called Genesis Systems, and I’m really excited about that, because it’s a chance for me to get involved in something really tangible. I think you’ve heard the quote from Peter Thiel, that we were promised flying cars and we got 140 characters. And I actually believe strongly in that.
I think there are too many people in Silicon Valley working on social media, and getting people to click on ads. So I’m really excited to get involved in a company that’s doing something really tangible, that’s going to maybe be transformative… If we can figure out how to directly generate water in very arid regions of the earth—in the Middle East, in North Africa, and so forth—that could be transformative.
Wow! I think by one estimate, if everybody had access to clean water, half of the hospital beds would be emptied in the whole world.
Yeah, it’s just an important problem, just on a human level and also in terms of security, in terms of the geopolitics of these regions. So I’m really excited to be involved with it.
Alright, well thank you so much for your time, and you have a good day.
Okay. Thank you.
Byron explores issues around artificial intelligence and conscious computers in his upcoming book The Fourth Age, to be published in April by Atria, an imprint of Simon & Schuster. Pre-order a copy here.