Martin Ford: How We’ll Earn Money in a Future Without Jobs (Transcript)

Here is the full transcript of Martin Ford’s TED Talk: How We’ll Earn Money in a Future Without Jobs.


MP3 audio: 



Martin Ford – Futurist

I’m going to begin with a scary question: Are we heading toward a future without jobs?

The remarkable progress that we’re seeing in technologies like self-driving cars has led to an explosion of interest
in this question. But because it’s something that’s been asked so many times in the past, maybe what we should really be asking is whether this time is really different.

The fear that automation might displace workers and potentially lead to lots of unemployment goes back at a minimum 200 years to the Luddite revolts in England. And since then this concern has come up again and again.

I’m going to guess that most of you have probably never heard of the Triple Revolution report. But this was a very prominent report. It was put together by a brilliant group of people. It actually included two Nobel laureates.

And this report was presented to the President of the United States, and it argued that the U.S. was on the brink of economic and social upheaval because industrial automation was going to put millions of people out of work.

Now that report was delivered to President Lyndon Johnson in March of 1964. So that’s now over 50 years and of course that hasn’t really happened. And that’s been the story again and again. This alarm has been raised repeatedly but it’s always been a false alarm.

And because it’s been a false alarm, it’s led to a very conventional way of thinking about this. And that says essentially that yes, technology may devastate entire industries. It may wipe out whole occupations and types of work.

But at the same time, of course, progress is going to lead to entirely new things. So there will be new industries that will arise in the future and those industries, of course, will have to hire people. There’ll be new kinds of work that will appear and those might be things that today we can’t really even imagine.

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And that has been the story so far, and it’s been a positive story. It turns out that the new jobs that have been created have generally been a lot better than the old ones. They have, for example, been more engaging. They’ve been in safer, more comfortable work environments, and of course they’ve paid more.

So it has been a positive story. That’s the way things have played out so far. But there is one particular class of worker for whom the story has been quite different. And for these workers, technology has completely decimated their work and it really hasn’t created any new opportunities at all. And these workers, of course, are horses.

So I can ask a very provocative question: is it possible that at some point in the future a significant fraction of the human workforce is going to be made redundant in the way that horses were.

Now you might have a very visceral reflexive reaction to that. You might say that’s absurd; how can you possibly compare human beings to horses? Horses, of course, are very limited and when cars and trucks and tractors came along, horses really had nowhere else to turn.

People, on the other hand, are intelligent. We can learn, we can adapt, and in theory that ought to mean that we can always find something new to do and that we can always remain relevant to the future economy.

But here’s the really critical thing to understand. The machines that will threaten workers in the future are really nothing like those cars and trucks and tractors that displaced horses. The future is going to be full of thinking, learning, adapting machines. And what that really means is that technology is finally beginning to encroach on that fundamental human capability. The thing that makes us so different from horses and the very thing that so far has allowed us to stay ahead of the march of progress and remain relevant and in fact indispensable to the economy.

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So what is it that is really so different about today’s information technology relative to what we’ve seen in the past? I would point to three fundamental things.

And the first thing is that, of course, we have seen this ongoing process of exponential acceleration. Now I know you all know about Moore’s law. But in fact, it’s more broad-based than that. It extends in many cases, for example, to software. It extends to communications bandwidth and so forth.

But the really key thing to understand is that this acceleration has now been going on for a really long time. In fact, it’s been going on for decades. If you measure from the late 1950s when the first integrated circuits were fabricated, we’ve seen something on the order of 30 doublings in computational power since then.

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