Events - 12.05.2016 - 00:00 

Rise of the Robots

Will robots make work obsolete? At the St. Gallen Symposium Martin Ford discusses how robots could threaten jobs.

12 May 2016. Entrepreneur and author Martin Ford addressed the St. Gallen Symposium on the topic “Rise of the Robots”. He is the founder of Solutionsoft, a Silicon Valley-based software-development firm, and the author of the New York Times Bestseller “Rise of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of a Jobless Future” (winner of the 2015 Financial Times/McKinsey Business Book of the Year).

The basic thesis of the book is that technology is advancing to a point where it could displace working people in a more substantial way than previously seen. In the Industrial Revolution, machines took over repetitive jobs and workers had to either gain more skill to work alongside these machines or transition into different work. The difference now, said Ford, is “these machines are beginning to think. They are taking on real cognitive function.”

Take driving, for example, a common activity. Once self-driving cars become a reality, millions of people will lose an opportunity to perform their occupation, and there won’t be a way for them to find another job in the same field.

How to avoid being automated out of a job

Ford was clear that he believes that almost all routine jobs will disappear. At first these will be the kinds of jobs that we can imagine disappearing, like agriculture work and factory work. But it will affect knowledge-based jobs as well – professions such as law, accounting and radiology. These are currently well-paid professions, jobs that require highly educated people, which could vanish in the foreseeable future.

Ford says high-skill jobs that have a mobility component are more difficult to automate: workers like plumbers, nurses and electricians who have a level of expertise and can travel.

How is basic income relevant?

Switzerland in June will vote on a guaranteed minimum income and Ford believes this is a positive development. A reasonable safety net that meets basic requirements would allow people to do more creative and fulfilling tasks instead of having to stay in a job just for the paycheck, he said. “I believe we need a radical restructuring of our society, and I am advocating a guaranteed minimum income.”

Jobs provide many of us with a sense of accomplishment as well as a way for us to provide for ourselves and our families. Ford foresees that this concept might be separated in the future. A sense of fulfilment may come from activities that do not also include pay.

The positive perspective on the rise of robots is that machines will be able to do the jobs that no one wants to do: dangerous jobs, boring jobs, like digging a ditch, will no longer be required. That means more people will be able to focus on more creative enterprises.

Ford also noted that governments and politicians are not worried about these developments because they are still down the road. He also still sees a lot of scepticism. He believes it will be a major challenge for all societies, and especially for younger generations. It is impossible to predict how this will exactly turn out.

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