Dear Madam / Mr. President:
Over fifty years ago, in March 1964, a document known as the “Triple Revolution Report” landed on the desk of your predecessor, Lyndon Johnson. That report, written by a prominent group of intellectuals that included two Nobel laureates, argued that the United States was on the brink of dramatic social and economic disruption as rapidly advancing industrial automation technology was poised to throw millions out of work.
Needless to say, that dire prediction did not come to pass. However, there are good reasons to believe that technology has finally advanced to the point where such concerns need to be taken seriously. The fear that machines might displace workers and create unemployment has a long history, and because the alarm has been prematurely sounded so many times in the past, there is a real danger that a “little boy who cried wolf” effect will leave us complacent and unprepared if and when the disruption finally arrives.
Recent advances in artificial intelligence and robotics suggest that it is entirely possible that a significant impact on the job market could begin to unfold during the course of your presidency. The most important thing to understand about all this progress is that computers no longer have to be programmed step-by-step. Machine learning—a technology that involves smart algorithms churning through vast amounts of data—in effect allows computers figure out for themselves how to perform tasks or reach specific goals.
The recent triumph of Google’s DeepMind technology at learning to play the ancient game of “Go” and then triumphing against one of the world’s best players was an especially vivid demonstration of the technology, but, in fact, machine learning is already in widespread use across both industries and occupations. Smart algorithms have already displaced lawyers and paralegals who once reviewed documents as part of the legal discovery process. An increasing number of news articles published my major U.S. media companies are being generated autonomously by systems that analyze data and create content that is often indistinguishable from a story written by a human journalist. Machine learning is also powering the latest generation of robots, and the machines are rapidly becoming more flexible and dexterous.
As technology continues to accelerate, the number and types of jobs that can be automated is certain to expand dramatically. It’s not just factory workers that can be replaced by robots and machines: Rapidly improving software automation and specialized artificial intelligence applications will make knowledge worker and professional occupations requiring college educations and advanced skills increasingly vulnerable. This demonstrated capability for information technology to climb the skills ladder and threaten the jobs taken by college graduates is a special cause for concern because it calls into question the only conventional solution we have to offer workers displaced by automation: ever more training and education.
If technology eventually results in wide-spread unemployment, or if it drives down wages for the majority of workers as jobs are deskilled and commoditized, then we could also run into a serious problem with consumer demand. Jobs are the primary mechanism that gets purchasing power into the hands of consumers so that they buy the products and services generated by the economy. If automation has a negative impact on consumer demand and confidence, then we run the risk of economic stagnation or even a downward, deflationary spiral.
While these concerns may seem either far-fetched science fiction or a return to the Ludditism we’ve experienced in the past, many of us in the technology community believe the risk is real–and that it deserves serious consideration. At a time when our political system is intensely polarized and seems unable to respond to even the most mundane challenges, the prospect of a dramatic and unanticipated economic and social disruption is not sometime we can afford to take lightly.
If the automation of jobs proves to be a relentless trend, then there will eventually be no alternative but to consider unconventional solutions–perhaps including a guaranteed basic income for all Americans. Needless to say, the implementation of such policies would present a staggering political challenge. Given that there is no reliable way to predict when the disruption will occur, or how fast it will unfold, it is imperative that planning begin well in advance. A logical first step would be to initiate some experimental pilot programs designed to test various policy responses. The data generated by these programs would be invaluable in eventually crafting an effective national policy to adapt our economy and society to the implications of disruptive technology.
I urge you to consider including among those who staff your new administration experts who are familiar with recent advances in artificial intelligence and robotics and with the potential economic and social impact of these technologies, and who are prepared to initiate the planning process.
Martin Ford is the Author of Rise of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of a Jobless Future, winner of the 2015 Financial Times and McKinsey Business Book of the Year Award.