May 1, 2015
By Joe Maniscalco

What happens when robots take over the workplace?
What happens when robots take over the workplace?

New York, NY –  In as little as five years, hi-tech robots could replace fast food workers at restaurants across the country — and that’s only the beginning. According to the author of the provocative new book, “Rise of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of a Jobless Future,” it won't matter if you have a white collar job with a post graduate degree — inevitably, we’re all going to be unemployed. 

“It’s somewhat surprising that we haven’t seen it already,” author Martin Ford recently told LaborPress in an exclusive, albeit disturbing, interview. “Once one big company moves in that direction, then they will all sort of follow.”

McDonald’s has already introduced touch screen ordering in Europe, and the Silicon Valley software developer doesn’t believe that anything can stop advanced automation from forcing flesh and blood workers onto the unemployment line here in the Untied States, even if sympathetic consumers decide to raise hell about it.

“I wouldn’t put too much hope in that,” Ford says. “It would be nice to think that people would rebel and not use the technology on that basis. But the fact of the matter is, when you’re wearing your consumer hat and not your worker hat, you look for the lowest price.”

Online giant Amazon presently employs some of the most sophisticated robots in the industry, and have succeeded in crushing a whole host of competitors unable or unwilling to match them. 

“Circuit City is gone, and no one really cares about that,” Ford says. “People just order the cheapest thing online.”

Just look around, ATMs are ubiquitous, and self-check out lines at the local supermarket are becoming more prevalent by the day. No matter how traditional they may seem right now, Ford in convinced that there are precious few service related jobs — save maybe for nurses — that aren’t destined for extinction in the not too distant future.

“You can’t say that these jobs are safe because consumers are never going to accept it,” Ford says. “I don’t think that’s true.”

A gleeful right wing crowd will no doubt seize upon the coming wave of workplace automation as another reason to oppose raising the minimum wage, arguing that employees whining about more money will only convince the blessed job creators to switch to much more compliant robots all that sooner. 

But Ford, whose previous book, “Lights in the Tunnel,” at least sounds a little bit more optimistic about the future, dismisses that notion, and instead supports raising the minimum wage right now.

“In the shorter term, I am generally supportive of raising the minimum wage,” he says. “It will help a lot of people. And it’s not going to make much difference one way or another — the automation is coming anyway.”

What the heck are people going to do if robots take over all the jobs? Ford says that’s the hard question society is soon going to have to face.

Author Martin Ford.
Author Martin Ford.

“The one hopeful note is that this is not just about people in factories and fast food workers or blue collar workers — this is coming for everyone,” Ford says. “It’s coming for desk jobs. It’s coming for white collar jobs. It’s coming for people with college degrees and even graduate degrees. Everyone is going to be in the same boat. It’s not going to be this thing where it’s only people who have the kinds of jobs that can be unionized that are impacted by this. This is going to be a much wider impact, and we’re going to need a solution for everyone."

The solution that Ford offers, which he says even some conservatives support, is to say the least, controversial.

“We’re eventually going to have to move towards a guaranteed income model where people are going to have a guaranteed income whether they have a job or not,” Ford explains. “That’s a pretty radical idea, but ultimately, I think that’s where we have to head.”

Without a guaranteed income model, the U.S. is going to have a huge problem, Ford warns. 

“Eventually, you get into a situation where no one has any money to buy the services and products that are being produced,” he says. “It’s a stagnation of the whole economy. I don’t think you can have a prosperous future where only a tiny number of really rich people have any money to buy things. It’s not sustainable.”

As scary as all this sounds, Ford is hoping that an earnest conversation about how to cope with the unavoidable robot revolution can at least begin. 

“Everybody in Silicon valley is focused on the technology side of it and not too many people think much about the social and economic side of it," Ford says. "And that’s a problem.”

The dysfuntional nature of the politcal process and its glacially slow pace also spells trouble for all of us. 

“FDR was talking about universal healthcare in the 1930s,” Ford says. “It took about 80 years for the United States to finally do something about healthcare. We definitely don’t have 80 years to play with here because technology is moving really fast.”


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