TOPICS > Economy > Making Sen$e

Are we on the brink of a jobless future?

August 31, 2017 at 6:15 PM EDT
Futurologists have been predicting the automation armageddon -- robots replacing human workers -- for decades. Has the future finally arrived? Economics correspondent Paul Solman visits Silicon Valley to talk with leading tech thinkers and computer scientists about whether humanity is at a tipping point.

MILES O’BRIEN: We’re going to get a better picture tomorrow of how strong job creation is when the monthly employment report comes out.  But whatever that snapshot looks like, there are concerns about the rise of robotics and automation, and what that means for the future of the work force.

Our economics correspondent, Paul Solman, has been exploring that subject.

Here’s his latest report for our weekly series Making Sense.

PAUL SOLMAN: In Silicon Valley, author Vivek Wadhwa says he already lives in the future. There’s his mostly driverless electric car.

OK, so, your car can open the garage door and greet you in the driveway?

VIVEK WADHWA, Author, “The Driver in the Driverless Car:” Yes. And then, when I get on the road, I can put it on autopilot and say, OK, car, take over.

Look at that. I mean, I’m just sitting here with the car doing its magic.

PAUL SOLMAN: There’s his magical solar home, which has cut his energy bills from $1,000 a month to $500 a year.

VIVEK WADHWA: This is how all of us are going to live in about 10 or 15 years from now. Solar is going to keep dropping in price, to the point that it’s almost free.

PAUL SOLMAN: And having survived a heart attack, his magical health cube, 32 instant tests that give new meaning to the phrase doc in a box.

VIVEK WADHWA: And each test costs about 10 or 15 cents.


VIVEK WADHWA: A 12-lead EKG, the same stuff that they do at hospitals. And everything goes into your electronic medical records on the cloud.

PAUL SOLMAN: In a heartbeat.

His daughter-in-law taught me to use it.

VIVEK WADHWA: So, we’re going to take blood, my friend.

PAUL SOLMAN: What I won’t do for television.

VIVEK WADHWA: Oh, there’s your reading.

PAUL SOLMAN: So, my blood glucose reading has already been done?


PAUL SOLMAN: Projecting ahead, says Wadhwa:

VIVEK WADHWA: We live in the most amazing period in human history. We can have unlimited energy, unlimited food, provide education for everyone, clean water, all the things that have held mankind back.

PAUL SOLMAN: But when it comes to what we will all do for a living?

VIVEK WADHWA: I see millions of jobs in every industry being wiped out.

PAUL SOLMAN: Just ask the voice of Amazon.

VIVEK WADHWA: Alexa, how many people does Amazon help employ?

COMPUTER VOICE: is an employer of 222,400 people.

PAUL SOLMAN: That’s a quarter-of-a-million people that Amazon is employing.

VIVEK WADHWA: Well, how many people does Wal-Mart employ? — 1.3 million people. And Amazon is just getting started with automation. They’re working on drone-based delivery. They’re going to have self-driving trucks.

The workers put stuff in boxes, but there’s no reason why robots couldn’t do that as well.

PAUL SOLMAN: Now, a human-free future isn’t here just yet. But nearly half-a-world away, at Oxford University, researcher Michael Osborne also thinks jobs are toast.

MICHAEL OSBORNE, University of Oxford: Back in 2013, we came up with an estimate that as much as 47 percent of current U.S. employment might be at high risk of automatability.

Waiters and waitresses is one example. Truck drivers is another, forklift drivers, accountants and auditors, cashiers, people working in retail, even umpires, interestingly, referees.

PAUL SOLMAN: To be sure, futurologists have been predicting automation Armageddon for decades.

But, says economist Carl Frey, the future is now.

CARL FREY, University of Oxford: The potential scope of automation has expanded quite rapidly, and a new set of occupations and industries are affected as a result of that.

PAUL SOLMAN: And it’s going to happen faster than we think, says Vivek Wadhwa.

VIVEK WADHWA: Almost every profession I look at where you require human labor or you require intelligence, I see computers being able to do better than us within the next 10 years. I’m talking about a mass replacement of humans with artificial intelligence and robots.

PAUL SOLMAN: But health cube or no, certainly not the doctors who saved his life, who keep him healthy now?

VIVEK WADHWA: But why not? I mean, I — 10 years from now, I would trust an A.I. doctor over a human doctor any day, because the A.I. doctor will be looking at all of my data.

PAUL SOLMAN: And it isn’t just happening at Wadhwa’s house, but also nearby, where Facebook was built.

JOSH BROWDER, Founder, Do Not Pay: Mark Zuckerberg stayed here his first summer in Palo Alto.

PAUL SOLMAN: Stanford University computer science undergrad Josh Browder working to fulfill a Shakespearian ambition: Kill all the lawyers.

JOSH BROWDER: I’m trying to replace the $200 billion legal industry with artificial intelligence.

PAUL SOLMAN: Browder’s created Do Not Pay, an app he built to fight parking tickets in the U.K., where he’d amassed dozens, and couldn’t afford the tab.

JOSH BROWDER: And so I had to figure out other ways to get the tickets dismissed, if the signage is not up to code, or if the parking bay is illegally too small. There are these letters where if you cite the code, cite how your case applies to it, you can get out of the ticket. There’s nothing the government can do.

PAUL SOLMAN: Browder claims a 60 percent success rate, and has expanded Do Not Pay to the U.S. and to other legal imbroglios.

JOSH BROWDER: So, it currently works for over 1,000 areas, 1,000 legal robots, I like to call them. All sorts of consumer rights issues. But, soon, I’m going to do much more complicated stuff, like lowering your property tax bill or filing for divorce.

PAUL SOLMAN: Free legal software for all. Browder sees it as a sort of realization of a family dream.

JOSH BROWDER: Yes, so, my great grandfather was the head of the American Communist Party.

PAUL SOLMAN: In the 1930s and ’40s, Earl Browder ran for president twice, as a communist.

JOSH BROWDER: He’s a big believer in everything being free, and so I like to think, although I’m doing it in a different way, using technology and Silicon Valley, he would be proud.

PAUL SOLMAN: But to Wadhwa, it’s not the thought, but the technology that counts.

VIVEK WADHWA: A young kid who has no qualifications in artificial intelligence, who has no qualifications in law, he’s talking about wiping out a $100 billion industry. So this is the amazing and scary thing about the future we’re headed into.

PAUL SOLMAN: Scary, because, while automation is the very definition of productivity — more output per unit of labor — as Oxford’s Carl Frey points out:

CARL FREY: Sadly, since the 1980s, quite a few workers have had a bad experience from automation, and I think that is what is determining much of the resurgence in populism that we see now.

PAUL SOLMAN: Indeed, Frey has just published a paper showing that automation anxiety was strongly linked to votes for Donald Trump.

So, are Vivek Wadhwa and the Trump electorate seeing the same dark future? And if so, are they right?

Not at all, says Silicon Valley computer scientist Jerry Kaplan.

JERRY KAPLAN, Author, “Artificial Intelligence: What Everyone Needs to Know”: There’s more people employed today than there ever have been. And how do we explain that, except through a process by which increased productivity increases economic opportunities and actually employs more people than the robots displace.

PAUL SOLMAN: For example, if we’re wealthier, we will take more vacations.

JERRY KAPLAN: You have got jobs like flight attendant, hospitality workers, masseuses, yoga teachers, advisers of every kind. And that’s a result of the increase in the discretionary income we will have as the result of the growth of the economy.

PAUL SOLMAN: So, think of all the jobs we could do that we haven’t even thought of yet. And that’s true, admits Oxford’s Osborne.

MICHAEL OSBORNE, University of Oxford: In the 2000s, we have seen occupations such as Zumba instructors emerge.

PAUL SOLMAN: But, he says, as more and more workers compete for the same non-tech jobs, what will the jobs pay?

MICHAEL OSBORNE: I think we have seen some of that in the last couple of decades, right, with median wages remaining relatively stagnant.


MICHAEL OSBORNE: Technology is, many people believe, the key driver behind that.

PAUL SOLMAN: And tech researchers like Osborne are driving the technology. And so I asked:

If you say to a fellow researcher, hey, we’re displacing jobs, or putting downward pressure on low-skill wages, what do they say to you?

MICHAEL OSBORNE: I think — this is — I’m not sure I want to answer this question, to be honest.

PAUL SOLMAN: But I pressed for an answer.

MICHAEL OSBORNE: So, we’re in this really exciting, but, in a way, terrifying period of history where it could go either way.

PAUL SOLMAN: And that happens to be the message of Vivek Wadhwa’s new book, “Driver in the Driverless Car.”

Humanity, he says, is at a tipping point.

VIVEK WADHWA: We are the drivers in the driverless cars. We’re basically now sitting there watching it all happen.

PAUL SOLMAN: No hands.

VIVEK WADHWA: No hands. Look, ma, no hands.

The car is taking us where we told it to go, but the car is in control.

PAUL SOLMAN: At least we hope it is.

There’s all these cars coming up. No, no, no, no, no, no, no. Stop it. Stop it.

VIVEK WADHWA: You’re right. Why didn’t it do — it wasn’t stopping, was it?

PAUL SOLMAN: No, it wasn’t stopping.

VIVEK WADHWA: It would have stopped. I would have bet it would have stopped.

PAUL SOLMAN: Happily, we will never know, any more than we do at the moment about the future of robots and jobs.

For the PBS NewsHour, economics correspondent Paul Solman reporting — don’t do that again — somewhat anxiously from El Camino Real in Palo Alto.