The HR Impact of AI: An Interview with Martin Ford


Where do you see the most promising/concerning examples of how artificially intelligent automation and robotics are already disrupting our economy and jobs?

Aside from obvious examples such as robots in manufacturing, there is also going to be a major impact on white collar, knowledge-based jobs.

There has already been a significant impact in a number of areas.  It's important to note that it is usually tasks, rather than entire jobs that are likely to be automated.  However, if you can automate a significant fraction of what workers are spending their time on, then that can easily result in consolidation and fewer jobs.

One of the most dramatic examples I've seen comes from a study done by the Hackett Group that found around 40% of corporate jobs in the finance department (accounting, accounts payable, etc.) have disappeared over the last decade largely as a result of automation.  (The study is described in the Wall Street Journal article, "The New Bookkeeper Is a Robot.")

Wall Street has also seen a dramatic impact.  By one account about a third of the financial sector jobs in New York City have disappeared since 2000.  Trading floors, of course, used to be full of people calling on phones.  Now it is all automated and most trading is algorithmic.  There are now hedge funds run almost entirely by AI.

In general, any job that involves sitting in front of a computer manipulating information in some relatively routine, predictable way is going to be vulnerable to automation.

Examples already include journalism (systems from Narrative Science and Automated Insights generate news stories directly from data), law (e-discovery algorithms and systems capable of analyzing contracts), many areas of accounting, auditing, financial analysis, etc.

In medicine, machine learning systems have already outperformed human radiologists and pathologists at interpreting medical images in some cases.

How is this "revolution" different than the other revolutions such as the industrial revolution?

I think this time is different for a couple of important reasons: (1) Machines are beginning, at least in a limited sense, to think and perhaps most importantly to learn.  They are encroaching on the fundamental human capability that really sets us apart as a species.  (2) It is incredibly broad-based.  IT and AI are true general purpose technologies and will invade every sector of the economy and job market.

It's true that people have adapted and found work in the past.  The best example is probably agriculture: most people used to work on farms.  Then farm machinery came along and millions of jobs were lost.  What happened?  People moved to factory work.  Later they moved to the service sector.

However, each of those transitions still involved most people doing work that is fundamentally routine and predictable.  People went from farm to factory to office or retail store, but in each case they were doing basically routine stuff.

This time, there is not some new sector of the economy that will produce millions of routine jobs.  All that is going to evaporate in the face of technology.  Some people, of course, will successfully transition into non-routine or creative occupations, but I am very skeptical that everyone in our workforce can make that kind of transition and that there will be enough of those jobs.

Since you wrote the best-selling book, "The Rise of the Robots" in 2015, what has changed your perspective, if anything?

I have not significantly shifted my expectations.  The technological advances we are seeing in areas like robotics, self-driving vehicles and deep learning are in some cases beyond what I anticipated.  So, I continue to expect that we will likely to see significant economic and social disruption – probably within the next 10 to 20 years.

What changes to our economic system do you believe could – or should – occur due to this disruption?

I think the most important adaptation will eventually be some sort of guaranteed income or universal basic income.  The key is to make sure that technological progress benefits everyone and that large numbers of people are not left behind.  A basic income is probably the best way to do this.  This is, of course, a radical idea that will represent a staggering political challenge, especially in the U.S.  However, in the long run, I think it is nearly inevitable to that will have to move in this direction in order to adapt our economic system to the technological realities of the future.

Given your concerns about the impact of technology on employment and the economy, do you believe that the government should regulate these technologies?  What advice would you give policymakers about getting society and the economy ready for this disruption?

In general, I am not in favor of laws that would regulate or restrict automation technologies.  This would make your country less competitive and result in less progress.  Instead, I would rather see an expansion of the safety net to help those who are impacted together with investment in education to help people adapt as much as possible.  I also support pilot projects to experiment with a basic income, so we can gather the data we will need to potentially scale this solution out in the future.

Furthermore, what advice would you give Chief Human Resource Officers about getting their companies ready for this disruption?

I think one key is to emphasize developing employees who are highly flexible and have the ability to rapidly acquire new skills as the technological landscape shifts.  It also means hiring people with strengths in areas such as creativity, and interpersonal relationships that are likely to be less susceptible to automation going forward.

Where do you come out on the debate between those who say, "AI is a fundamental existential risk for human civilization", versus those who say, "AI is going to deliver so many improvements to the quality of our lives"?

I think that, without doubt, AI is going to bring fantastic benefits—and that those benefits outweigh the associated risks.

The existential threat has been articulated by people like Stephen Hawking and Elon Musk.  Obviously, these are very smart people, so we should not be dismissive.  The worst case would be that a super-intelligent and self-aware computer decided it had no use for human beings.  This is the scenario we see in movies like the Terminator and the Matrix.  It is easy to dismiss as just science fiction, but it may eventually be a legitimate concern.  However, I do think this concern lies in the far future and long before then we will face big disruptions to the job market and economy.

Martin Ford is the founder of a Silicon Valley-based software development firm and the author of two books: 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. Rise of the Robots received the Financial Times/McKinsey Business Book of the Year Award and was named one of Business Insider’s Best Business Books of the Year.

He has over 25 years of experience in computer design and software development, and holds a computer engineering degree from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor and a graduate business degree from UCLA. He has written for publications including Fortune, Forbes, The Atlantic, The Washington Post, Project Syndicate, The Huffington Post and The Fiscal Times.

He has also appeared on numerous radio and television shows, including programs on NPR and CNBC, and was featured on a recent CBS Sunday Morning segment on the impact of artificial intelligence. He is scheduled to appear at this year’s TED 2017 conference.