The Robot Revolution and Jobs: “Humans Need Not Apply” (video)

It has been about five years since the publication of my 2009 book The Lights in the Tunnel: Automation, Accelerating Technology and the Economy of the Future, which argued that we are on the brink of a revolution in robotics and artificial intelligence that would put millions of jobs at risk—and quite possibly threaten our overall economic prosperity.  Over the next few years, I followed up with a series of posts both here and at Huffington Post, warning of a future unemployment crisis, the potential automation of low-wage fast food jobs as well as the higher-skill white collar jobs sought by college graduates, and the negative economic consequences of widespread automation.

For most of the five years that I have been writing on this subject, I’ve been a relatively lonely voice; the attention of both the public and economists has been focused elsewhere. Over the the past year or so, however, things have changed quite dramatically: deep concern about the robot revolution—and its impact on jobs—is going mainstream.

In September 2013, researchers at Oxford University conducted a study of over 700 occupations and found that jobs representing about 47 percent of total U.S. employment (or over 60 million jobs) are likely to be susceptible to automation within the next decade or two.  A separate study by a think tank in Brussels found that between 50 and 60 percent of jobs in most European nations could eventually be taken over by robots or algorithms.  More recently, a survey of experts by Pew Research found that the vast majority expect that “robotics and artificial intelligence will permeate wide segments of daily life by 2025,” and about half of those surveyed expected a significantly negative impact on jobs.

Many of these concerns are captured in the extremely well-produced video, “Humans Need Not Apply,”  just released by C.G.P. Grey.  Grey has become well-known for short, high quality videos that clarify a variety of complicated topics, but this is his first full-fledged documentary and offers one of the best explanations I’ve seen as to why we should worry about the coming robot invasion.  I’d strongly recommend taking 15 minutes to watch this great video.

Update: I’ve added a second good video called “Transitions for Society.” The first the video does a great job of explaining technological unemployment, but doesn’t focus on solutions. The second video offers some possible policy prescriptions.

Humans Need Not Apply

Transitions for Society

10 thoughts on “The Robot Revolution and Jobs: “Humans Need Not Apply” (video)

  1. Martin, thanks for posting this. I agree it is a terrific video. Regarding being a lonely voice, I know how that feels as I’ve been talking about this for many years myself (even back on Usenet and at IBM Research around 2000) and most people still have their head in the sand. It’s a long slow process. Please continue to keep up the good fight! Mainstream economics has become essentially a form of religion apologizing for the status quo as the best of all possibilities, and it does not take kindly to people questioning some of its central assumptions. I reread James P. Hogan’s 1982 novel “Voyage from Yesteryear” when I want some inspiration, as it depicts a lot of denialism by those advocating mainstream economics when it collides with a culture of abundance.

    With your background in technology, I’d suggest you might want to consider making economic simulations like the “Lights in the Tunnel” and more as HTML/CSS3/JavaScript web pages where people could play with the simulation and various assumptions and see what happens to jobs and cash flow and human happiness over time. That could be another way to get more people thinking about these issues. I’ve wanted to do that myself regarding my own thoughts on the matter (“Five Interwoven Economies”, especially about a basic income), but just have not had the time.

    A few days ago, I linked to your previous post on this and the video as a Slashdot submission. It was accepted and sparked a lot of discussion. You can see that discussion here:

    You seem to have changed the link for the original post which I referenced in the Slashdot article so it no longer shows up on this site. You might want to redirect that previous link here.

    (Reposting this as my post from earlier today might have gotten lost. Feel free to delete one or the other if that one is just awaiting moderation.)

  2. Reblogged this on Commentary by Allan and commented:
    This post by Martin Ford talks about the impact of automation on our economy. This is a topic I’ve discussed in previous posts, and this is a good update. I echo Martin Ford’s recommendation that anyone interested in the subject watch the 15 minute video by C.G.P. Grey.

  3. I really liked the video because it opened my mind that robots can possibly take the jobs away from the best of us, even when you are a professional. What we as humans can do is to figure out how we can become more intelligent than robots and eventually be more in demand. Greater emphasis on education is needed. When there is more time spent into becoming more innovative, more intelligent and being better entrepreneurs, the demand to the “human touch” and the ”human feel” to things will increase and we will eventually outwit robots. Robots will always be a support system but will never replace the human element.

  4. That was a great video, terrifying but extremely sobering. As a student at university, I took this step into higher education with the obvious intention of gaining superior skills and capabilities that will make me more marketable. The extent of automation is astounding, and it is a very real, near threat to so many occupations. These programs are amazing and make a positive impact in many ways such as reducing accidents and housing a huge knowledge base that way outstrips that of any humans. I think that the firms and corporations developing AI will take over the market and there will be a workers revolution. But in the end technology will inevitably advance through consumerism, greed and laziness and people will have to adapt by creating value in their humanity

  5. I’ve read The Lights In The Tunnel and agree with the historical loss of low-skill and mid-skill jobs. My personal experience in the early 60s was an eye-opening experience. I started working as entry level test technician testing and troubleshooting modules for a UHF military transceiver. I and my fellow test technicians heard some engineers talking about how computers would be used to eliminate jobs in the factory. We felt confident that our jobs could not be easily automated. After working two years and advancing three steps toward the top of test technician skills I was asked if I wanted to accept a position as test foreman for group of test technicians testing and troubleshooting the first generation digital computer circuit boards. When I started I had no education or experience with binary logic and no knowledge of computer architecture. I spent three years as a test foremen in the computer manufacturing area; during that time I gained experience with some of the first automated test equipment in the company. Those early automated test systems – although very slow and simple by todays standards — replaced the labor and skills of more the ten test technicians.

    After three years, I found an engineering entry level position in the test equipment design group. I joined a team of six engineers who had designed and build a fully automated test punched tape controlled test system — Stored Program for Automate Test Equipment (SPATE). Three SPATE test systems performed the work of fifteen test technicians. My earlier predication that test technician jobs would not be effected by automation — proved to be very wrong. During my 34year career, I was involved in automation projects for nearly all types of company products. A majority of these products were low volume rates — no production rate higher than ten units per day — but automation was very cost effective in terms of improved quality and reduction in speed to the testing and reducing work-in-process.

    The trend line of automation impact on labor is accelerating a rapid rate that will not be stopped short of armed rebellion or meteor impact from outer space. I feel a large percentage of increased drug and other addiction is an indirect result of technology. National leaders must be made aware of the potential unrest that will continue as automation takes more jobs.

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