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Attention White-Collar Workers: The Robots Are Coming For Your Jobs

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Attention White-Collar Workers: The Robots Are Coming For Your Jobs

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Attention White-Collar Workers: The Robots Are Coming For Your Jobs

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TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Remember when you first saw a self-checkout aisle at a grocery store? We use them all the time now without giving much thought to the fact that they're doing work real people used to do. Our guest, Martin Ford, says that's something we'll have to think about more as advances in computer software dramatically expand the roles robots may soon play in our lives and the economy. In his new book, Ford says robots are beginning to perform white-collar jobs, like writing business stories and doing legal analysis. And, he says, robots are also being developed to take the place of the low-wage, low-skill service occupations that workers who've lost manufacturing jobs have been forced to take, like preparing fast food. Ford says accelerating robot technology could have far-reaching social and economic impacts, as even educated workers can't find employment, and their declining incomes lead to a collapse of consumer demand. Martin Ford is the founder of a Silicon Valley-based software development firm and the author of an earlier book about automation and the economy. FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies spoke to Ford about his new book, "Rise Of The Robots: Technology And The Threat Of A Jobless Future."

DAVE DAVIES, BYLINE: Well, Martin Ford, welcome to FRESH AIR. Robots have been around for a while in manufacturing. What's happening now that's different?

MARTIN FORD: Well, things are accelerating rapidly, and although robots are really kind of the poster child for all of this, it's really much more than just robots. This is not just about mechanical devices with robotic arms and so forth. Actually, much more of it is really just software. And it's all types of automation throughout the economy. So what we're generally seeing is just a dramatic acceleration in these technologies. And they're happening really across the board in every sector of the economy. It's not just by any means manufacturing. In fact, of course, in the United States, not many people really work in manufacturing anymore. So if it were only that, that wouldn't be such a big issue. But most people now work in the service sector, and that's what's going to be genuinely disruptive as these technologies encroach increasingly in the service sector and in office jobs and white-collar jobs and so forth. So it's really a very, very broad-based impact.

DAVIES: You describe going to a RoboBusiness conference in 2013. Give us a highlight. What did you see there?

FORD: Well, it was very interesting. There were a lot of vendors. They were demonstrating various technologies. One of the most remarkable, there was a robot called Baxter from Rethink Technologies, which is a lightweight manufacturing robot that's very flexible and is designed to work in close proximity to people and is very, very easy to train. You can, rather than having the need for a programmer, someone that's very expensive to hire to do sophisticated programs, this machine can be trained simply by moving its arms through the motion that you want it to undertake. So it's very easy to deploy in factories and businesses of all sizes. And there were many, many other specialized robots there. There were robots geared toward education that are intended to teach children, in some cases children with learning disabilities. There were the beginnings of personal robots that might actually begin to do useful things around the home. That's a technology that was - is really now in its infancy, and there's a long way to go there. But you're beginning to see some - some real progress. One of the most remarkable things was that there were roving robots, telepresence robots that allowed people who weren't actually at the conference to - to visit it and roam around and visit booths and everything remotely. So they were in other locations, but they were, you know, virtually present and able to actually visit booths and interact with people and have conversations and so forth. So it was really quite a remarkable demonstration of the technology and how it's actually unfolding right now.

DAVIES: Now, we're going to talk about how technology is potentially changing jobs in a lot of parts of the economy. But let's talk just for a moment about manufacturing. Give us a sense of the kinds of robots we see - we've seen for a while in manufacturing - and how what's coming is different.

FORD: Well, as you say, robots in manufacturing have been around for a long time. It's primarily been industrial robots, which are really heavy-duty, powerful machines. They have extraordinary strength and also extraordinary precision. But they have to be very, very carefully programmed. They generally have a safety cage around them because they're obviously unaware of any people that might be near them. They're very dangerous. There are accidents where people have been harmed and killed and so forth. But these are basically machines that are essentially choreographed. They're blind. They don't have vision. They rely on very precise positioning and timing. But they can perform tasks that are really routine and repetitive with just extraordinary precision and speed.

DAVIES: Like, for example, you're placing a windshield on a car at a production line, right? Again and again...

FORD: That's right. I mean...

DAVIES: Same thing.

FORD: Automotive assembly is probably the, you know, the most common use for these machines. And it's really extraordinary what they can do in terms of the precision and the speed and the strength of these machines. But in general, what we see in manufacturing is that any jobs that are truly repetitive or, you know, just rote, doing the same thing again and again, in advanced economies like the United States or Germany, those jobs are long gone. They've already been replaced by robots years and years ago. So what we've seen in manufacturing is that the jobs that are actually left for people to do tend to be the ones that require more flexibility or require visual perception and dexterity. Very often, these jobs kind of fill in the gaps between machines - for example, feeding parts into the next part of the production process. Or very often, they're at the ends of the process, perhaps loading and unloading trucks and moving raw materials and finished products around, those types of things. But what we're seeing now in robotics is that finally, the machines are coming for those jobs as well. And you're - and this is being driven by advances in areas like visual perception. You've now got robots that can see in three-dimension, and that's getting much better and also becoming much less expensive. So you're beginning to see machines that are starting to have the kind of perception and dexterity that begins to approach what human beings can do. And so a lot more jobs are becoming susceptible to this and, you know, that's something that's going to continue to accelerate. And more and more of those jobs are going to disappear, and factories are just going to relentlessly approach full automation, where there really just aren't going to be many people at all.

DAVIES: What's an example of a job that one of these newer-generation robots that have visual perception and other skills, a job that they would perform?

FORD: Well, there's a company here in Silicon Valley called Industrial Perception, which is focused specifically on loading and unloading boxes and moving boxes around. And this is a job that up until recently, you know, would have been beyond the robots because it relies on visual perception, often in varied environments, where the lighting may not be perfect and so forth and where the boxes may be stacked haphazardly instead of precisely. And it's been very, very difficult for a robot to take that on. But they've actually built a robot that's very sophisticated and may eventually be able to move boxes, about one per second. And that would compare with about one per every six seconds for a particularly efficient person. So it's dramatically faster. And of course, you know, a robot that moves boxes is never going to get tired. It's never going to get injured. It's never going to, you know, file a Worker's Compensation claim.

DAVIES: A lot of manufacturing, of course, has moved overseas. And there are costs associated with that - I mean, shipping things over great distances. Will these advances in robotics make it more likely that manufacturing will come back to the United States? And if so, what will that mean for employment?

FORD: Yes. I mean, that is happening to some extent now. There are a lot of reports of what's called reshoring, where manufacturing is actually coming back. The problem is that the manufacturing comes back, but very few jobs come back. To give one example that I cite in the book is a textile plant that back in the 1980s or 1990s might have employed up to 2,000 people. And those jobs, you know, basically went to China. Those - those factories disappeared. And now some of them are actually coming back. But rather than 2,000 workers, the new factories actually employ something on the order of perhaps 150 people. So it's just a tiny fraction of the workforce that was once there. And of course, it's all because of automation. You know, it's robots and other forms of automation in the factories that actually make the costs of those factories competitive, even with the lowest-wage workers in China and in other countries.

DAVIES: So manufacturing is an area where there's going to be a lot of change and maybe less employment. You know, we have lots of jobs in the country, however tedious and low-paying, in service industries like food service. Tell us about the San Francisco robot and the gourmet burger that might change things there.

FORD: That's right. There's a company in San Francisco. The name of it is Momentum Machines, and they're just one particular startup that's really focused on building, basically, a robotic hamburger flipper. And essentially, it's a machine that produces very, very high-quality hamburgers. It can produce about 350 to 400 per hour. They come out fully configured on a - on a conveyor belt, ready to serve to the customer. You know, they've got...

DAVIES: Now, are you saying that it carefully slices my tomatoes and my avocado slices and assembles it all the way...

FORD: That's right. That's - that's exactly right. And it's all, you know, fresh vegetables and freshly ground meat and so forth. It's not, you know, frozen patties like you might find at a fast-food joint. So these are - these are actually much higher-quality hamburgers than you'd find at a typical fast-food restaurant. They're more probably comparable to a place like Five Guys or something like that, where you've got higher-quality food. But they're building a machine that's actually quite compact, that could potentially be used not just in fast-food restaurants, but in convenience stores and also maybe in vending machines.

DAVIES: OK, what about retail jobs? I mean, if you walk in a department, there are a fair number of people who work there that run the registers and restock the shelves and do all of that. How might that be affected?

FORD: Again, there's going to be a variety of things happening there. We already, of course, see the self-service checkout aisles. That's really just the beginning of it. And those are going to get better and better. Where I live, they are becoming much more popular. Initially, when they first came out, people were reluctant to use them. Now we find here in Silicon Valley that if you go to the grocery store, very often there's a long line of people waiting to use these self-serve checkout things. So they are already becoming more popular, and they're going to get a lot more effective. Beyond that, I think eventually, you will see actual robots coming into retail stores. And you're starting to see, again, the beginning of that already. There's already a hardware store here that has a customer service robot that, for example, is capable of leading customers to the proper place on the shelves in order to find an item and that type of thing.

DAVIES: What about low-wage agricultural jobs? I mean, are there robots that will be able to pick strawberries?

FORD: Absolutely. That's happening already in Japan. They've got a robot that they use now to - to pick strawberries. And it can do that, you know, one strawberry every few seconds. And it actually operates at night, so it's - so that they can operate around the clock picking strawberries. What we see in agriculture is that - that's the sector that has actually already been the most dramatically impacted by technology. And of course, it initially was mechanical technologies. It was tractors and harvesters and so forth. And there are some areas of agriculture now that are almost - you can say essentially fully automated. I mean, one person driving a tractor with this machinery can actually operate an entire farm by themselves. And there's - so there's really no labor content to a lot of agricultural products in advanced countries anymore. Where there is still labor is in, for example, high-value fruits and vegetables that have to be picked individually and are easily damaged and so forth. And that's the area where, for example, you see a lot of migrant workers that still have jobs. And yet, we now see robots moving aggressively into that area as well. And this is happening especially in countries like Japan and Israel and Australia that don't have access to low-wage migrant workers. You know, they're either islands or have security considerations and so forth. And so there's a very strong incentive there to actually develop these robotic technologies because they don't have access to the workers.

DAVIES: Martin Ford's new book is called "Rise Of The Robots: Technology And The Threat Of A Jobless Future." We'll talk more in a moment. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, our guest is Martin Ford. He's the founder of a Silicon Valley-based software development firm and the author of a new book about the impact of the advances in robotics on the American economy and employment. It's called "The Rise Of The Robots." I'm going to read a - a sports story that you have in the book, and you'll know why I'm reading it. Let me just read this. This is an account of a baseball game. (Reading) Things looked bleak for the Angels when they trailed by two runs in the ninth inning, but Los Angeles recovered thanks to a key single from Vladimir Guerrero to pull out a 7-6 victory over the Boston Red Sox at Fenway Park on Sunday. Guerrero drove in two Angel runners. He went 2-4 at the plate. Quote, "when it comes down to honoring Nick Adenhart, what happened in April in Anaheim, yes, it was probably the biggest hit of my career," Guerrero said, "because I'm dedicating that to a former teammate, a guy that passed away" close quote. Why do you quote that story?

FORD: Well, I quote that because it was essentially written by software. You might - you might say that it was written by a robot, by a system from a company called Narrative Science. And this is actually a very early version of what they did. It was actually done by a system that was essentially a precursor to what they have now. So that's actually a very primitive example. What they have now is much more sophisticated. But they generate a whole lot of the news stories that you read, for example, on websites like forbes.com...

DAVIES: OK, well, let's get into how they do this. I mean, like, there was actually a baseball game. You're saying nobody watched Guerrero get those two hits. How did the robot know what to write?

FORD: Essentially, it looks at the raw data that's provided from some source, in this case from the baseball game. And it translates that into a real narrative. It's quite sophisticated. It doesn't simply take numbers and fill in the blanks in a formulaic report. It has the ability to actually analyze the data and figure out what things are important, what things are most interesting. And then it can actually weave that into a very compelling narrative.

DAVIES: Right. And it wasn't a formula. It begins by saying, things looked bleak for the Angels. It somehow knew enough to bring that adjective to describe the situation, a late inning situation in a ballgame. You're saying these - these machines are now in use in publications and media outlets already.

FORD: That's right. They're generating thousands and thousands of stories. In fact, the number I heard was about one story every 30 seconds is being generated automatically. And they appear on a number of websites and in the news media. Forbes is one that we know about. Many of the others that use this particular service aren't eager to disclose of that. They don't really want you to know that they're doing it this way. But it is becoming increasingly prevalent. And right now it tends to be focused on those areas that you might consider to be a bit more formulaic - for example, sports reporting and also financial reporting, things like earnings reports for companies and so forth. But it's getting better and better. And it's expanding into many other areas. And the companies that are doing this are also going beyond journalism and also focusing on internal corporate reports. So this is something that will also impact a lot of knowledge workers in corporations, the people that sit at a desk and, for example, produce written reports for presentation to management and so forth. A lot of that is also being done on an automated basis.

DAVIES: You write that the London Symphony recently played a composition created entirely by a computer.

FORD: That's right. They did. And it's a system that actually, you know, begins to exhibit creativity. So for the most part, when we talk about what's happening with white-collar jobs and with knowledge-based jobs, for right now it is the more routine, formulaic-type jobs, jobs that are predictable, the kinds of jobs where you tend to do the same kinds of things again and again. Those jobs are really being heavily impacted. But it's important to realize that that could change in the future. We already see a number of areas, like this program that was able to produce this symphony, where computers are beginning to exhibit creativity. They can actually create new things from scratch. And I give another example in my book, also, of a painting program, which actually can generate original art - not to take a photograph and Photoshop it or something but to actually generate original art. So we do see computers beginning to exhibit creativity. And, you know, in the future, there is the likelihood that we'll see that impact on more and more jobs, even more creative-type jobs.

DAVIES: Did you - have you heard the symphony?

FORD: I haven't personally heard it, but it got - it got pretty good reviews from experts that know about symphony music. So, you know, it wasn't of poor quality or anything. And they said that it was very interesting. So I think that this is something that we should be aware of in the future, that really, if you go far enough into the future and consider where these technologies are going, it's really hard to come up with a list of jobs on any level that aren't ultimately perhaps going to be threatened by this.

DAVIES: You know, you describe that some kinds of white-collar jobs, like, for example, in the legal profession, where in a complicated civil suit, you might have to go through big piles of documents and figure out which ones are relevant by scanning for certain keywords, that, you know, computers are already doing that. And so law firms are using fewer people. But you also write that middle-management jobs that require judgment might be replaced or automated. Can you give us an example and explain what you mean?

FORD: Well, that's part of the - what we call the big data phenomenon. And what's happening is that in corporations and organizations, there's just immense amounts of data being collected on all aspects of the operation. And companies are increasingly using algorithmic approaches to - churning through this data and essentially finding answers to problems. And it turns out that these algorithms very often can outperform human judgment. So where once you would've had a manager perhaps receiving reports from a bunch of analysts and then going through these reports and making sort of a gut decision, now you're seeing algorithms that can churn through data and actually produce a much better result and actually, you know, generate decisions that are a lot more effective. And so that ultimately is going to threaten, you know, huge numbers of managers, probably, in organizations and also the analysts that produce the reports to give to the managers. All those jobs are potentially threatened by this algorithmic approach, where you've got, you know, huge amounts of data that can really give you an answer that is much better than a human can.

GROSS: We're listening to the interview FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies recorded with Martin Ford, author of the new book, "Rise Of The Robots: Technology And The Threat Of A Jobless Future." After we take a short break, we'll hear more of the interview. Then, Kevin Whitehead will review a new album by Cuban pianist Ramon Valle, and David Bianculli will review last night's series finale of "Mad Men." I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to the interview our contributor Dave Davies recorded with Martin Ford, author of the new book "Rise Of The Robots" about how robots and software are taking over white-collar jobs in law, education, journalism and the service sector and the impact this will have on people's lives and the economy.

DAVIES: You know, we've already seen a lot of offshoring of white-collar jobs - you know, the computer help desk located in India where, you know, people - they don't need to be in the United States to understand, you know, the software or the product that they're helping people with. As this kind of technology advances, does it make that more or less likely?

FORD: Well, you know, it has kind of a mixed impact. What we see very often is that offshoring is kind of the leading edge of automation. In other words, it's what happens first when you don't have quite the technology to completely automate a job, then instead you'll go ahead and offshore it to a lower-wage worker somewhere else. But as technology gets better and better, what we're seeing increasingly is a lot of those more routine jobs that were once done by offshore workers are now being fully automated. And, for example, we've seen this with the employees that offer customer service over the phone being replaced by digital voice recognition systems and so forth. And that's something that will continue. So one implication of this is that a lot of the jobs now held by workers in lower-wage countries are eventually going to be threatened by automation, especially as you see systems like IBM Watson, for example, that has this tremendous natural language capability. As systems like that increasingly invade areas like customer service, a lot of those jobs are going to disappear.

So the other side of that is that, you know, you've got a lot of big corporations, especially in - based in places like India that specialize in that. And India itself, as a country, has really, you know, made a strategic investment in those types of jobs. So as they are increasingly threatened by automation, I think that one thing that is very likely to happen is that those companies will attempt to sort of move up the skills ladder. They'll attempt to - rather than offshoring these lower-wage routine jobs, they will try to come after more skilled, professional jobs. And what we'll see is that as the technology gets better and better, it will be a complement to workers in offshore locations that, you know, will essentially enhance their capability in ways that may make them competitive with the some very highly paid, skilled, American professional-type workers...

DAVIES: Like, give us an example of that kind of job.

FORD: We already see professions like lawyers and radiologists, for example, being offshored to countries like India. I think that in the future, you may see even younger, more inexperienced but very smart offshore workers that can be combined with these technologies and then may be able to threaten all kinds of knowledge workers in the United States that have a lot more experience. And again, a lot of it is driven by this big data phenomenon, where you've got algorithms churning through data that can substitute for experience. So once you've got that kind of technology and you combine it with a young, inexperienced but smart worker, you may be able to have a combination that can threaten a much more experienced worker based in the United States.

DAVIES: So somebody just out of law school but armed with, you know, a computer that has a huge database and very sophisticated software can perform like an old pro?

FORD: That's right. I mean, there's actually - in law, there is actually a specific technology that's developing called quantitative legal prediction. And it turns out that a big part of what lawyers do, especially experienced lawyers, is they make predictions. They make judgments like, for example, what's the likelihood you're going to win this case? Or what's the likelihood that this case might be overturned on appeal? Or what's the likelihood that a particular contract might be breached by the other side? It's those kind of judgments that make experienced lawyers valuable. And what we see is that these technologies are developing and these algorithms are actually beginning to outperform even those very experienced, very highly paid lawyers. So this is an area where, you know, it's not just entry-level jobs for new graduates that are being impacted, but even some of the work done by much more experienced attorneys. So this is really having, you know, quite a big impact already.

DAVIES: We have a huge health care industry in this country. Spend a fortune, and costs seem to continue to rise despite enormous innovation. What do you see happening in health care?

FORD: Health care is one of the areas where there's just a tremendous amount of potential and promise. So far, what we've seen in health care is that it has really lagged other areas of the economy in terms of what technology has been able to do. We haven't seen the kind of disruptive impact that we've seen in a lot of other areas in health care. And that's part of the reason that the costs remain so high. So going forward, we can actually hope this is one area where we really want to see more robots and more artificial intelligence because we really need to drive those health care costs down and make health care more effective and more efficient so that it becomes more affordable. So this is an area where there's a lot of potential, but there are some areas of health care where it still a tremendous challenge. For example, areas like nursing, which really rely on mobility and dexterity and visual perception as well as problem-solving and direct interaction with patients and so forth. And building...

DAVIES: And an emotional connection sometimes too?

FORD: That's right. I mean, building a robot that can do what a nurse does is still very much in the realm of science fiction at this point.

DAVIES: Well, we've spent some time here and eliminated tens of millions of jobs and just all the things that are going to happen here. Now, of course, this is a phenomenon that's been happening since the Industrial Revolution - technology changes, jobs are eliminated, but at the same time, productivity increases. The people who are working are producing more wealth. Somehow, new jobs are created, and the economy continues to grow. Why won't that cycle continue?

FORD: Well, I think that this time is genuinely different. It's always, of course, kind of dangerous to say that, especially when you're talking about economics because people can be very skeptical. But, you know, the difference has to do with the fact that the technologies are accelerating so rapidly. Our computers are now so much faster than they used to be, and they continue to accelerate. They're getting faster and faster. But perhaps the most important thing is that it is now so broad-based. You can think of information technology today as being almost like a utility. It's almost like electricity, except that rather than delivering electric power, it actually delivers, in some sense, machine intelligence. So it's delivering the ability to actually make decisions and solve problems and, most importantly, to learn. We now have algorithms that can learn and get better and better, and that's really quite unprecedented. So what we see is this utility-like technology that delivers intelligence, that delivers brainpower rather than muscle power, and it's happening everywhere. It's happening throughout the whole economy in every employment sector.

And you can contrast that, for example, with what happened in agriculture. The classic example that people who are skeptical about this typically will give is what happened in agriculture. It used be that most people in the United States worked on farms. Now the number of people who work on farms is less than 2 percent. And, of course, you know, there were millions and millions of jobs that were lost, but it wasn't a bad thing. It turned out to be a very good thing. You know, food is much cheaper now. People did move on to other areas. But what happened in agriculture when it happened a long time ago, it was a very specific and mechanical technology. It impacted agriculture, but it didn't impact the entire economy. So what happened was that those jobs were indeed lost, but then people were able to transition to other areas. People first moved to factories. And they moved, essentially, from more routine, repetitive-type jobs in agriculture to routine, repetitive jobs in factories. And then later on, the factories automated or offshored, and then people then moved into the service sector. But once again, they moved into relatively routine, repetitive jobs in the service sector.

So what you've seen is that this has, in the past, impacted on a sector-by-sector basis. First, agricultural, then manufacturing and now everyone is working in services. But now with today's information technology, it's just everywhere. It's impacting across the board. And the most disruptive thing that's going to happen is it is going to impact heavily in the service sector, which is now where everyone works. So there really isn't some new sector of the economy that's going to arise and be very labor-intensive to absorb all the workers that lose their jobs because of this. So that's really why it's different this time.

DAVIES: To what extent is the advance of technology and this kind of automation contributing to the concentrations of wealth and income we're seeing in the United States?

FORD: Well, I think it's having a tremendous impact. What we've seen is that, you know, it used to be up until around 1973 or so that as technology progressed and productivity rose, workers - average workers captured most of that productivity increase in the form of higher wages. And that was true from the end of World War II up until around 1973. But then somewhere around that point, these two lines decoupled. And what happens is that productivity continues to increase as technology advances, but workers aren't getting any more raises at all after that point, so all of the fruits of innovation and of technological progress are really being captured by business owners and by investors - in other words, by the people at the top of the income distribution. So this is one of the most important drivers, I think, of income inequality. It's not the only thing. There are obviously other things going on in terms of political changes and in terms of the fact that unions have been wiped out and in terms of globalization and so forth. But technology is certainly one of the most important things that's going on. And as we look forward from this point, we need to keep in mind that this technology is going to continue to accelerate. So I think that there's every reason to believe that it's going to become the primary driver of inequality in the future, and things are very likely to get even more extreme than they are now.

DAVIES: Martin Ford, thanks so much for speaking with us.

FORD: Thank you.

GROSS: Martin Ford spoke with FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies, who is also WHYY's senior reporter. Ford is the author of the new book "Rise Of The Robots." Coming up, Kevin Whitehead reviews a new album by Cuban pianist Ramon Valle. This is FRESH AIR.

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