TOPICS > Economy

Man vs. Machine: Will Human Workers Become Obsolete?

May 24, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
Part of his series on Making Sen$e of financial news, Paul Solman has been showcasing the future of technology from a recent conference run by a California think tank -- things such as 3-D printing of prosthetic legs and iPhone heart tests. But the conference also resurfaced an age-old question about the future of human workers.

JEFFREY BROWN: And now, more on the challenges of creating enough new jobs in an ever more automated and high-tech economy.

NewsHour economics correspondent Paul Solman has the story. It’s part of his ongoing reporting Making Sense of financial news.

NARRATOR: American labor, management and capital.

PAUL SOLMAN: Our favorite economics cartoon is a piece of free market propaganda from decades ago that envisioned a sort of cornucopia machine of the future, manned by the happy and lucky American worker, given the name King Joe.

ACTOR: Hi, folks.

NARRATOR: Joe’s the king because he can buy more with his wages than any other worker on the globe.

PAUL SOLMAN: Or at least, back in the mid-20th century, he could.

Today, our NewsHour inclusive statistic of all un- and under-employed totals more than 26 million Americans, nearly 17 percent of the work force. How many of them worked at jobs that machines now perform more cheaply? How many so-called knowledge workers are threatened by the likes of IBM’s “Jeopardy” champ, Watson?

COMPUTER: I have been waiting for this moment for a very long time.

PAUL SOLMAN: A machine that may soon echo the old song I can do anything better than you.

MAN: Watson?

COMPUTER: What is Jericho?

MAN: Correct.

This mystery author and her archaeologist hubby.


COMPUTER: Who is Agatha Christie?

MAN: Correct.

PAUL SOLMAN: We’ve been showcasing the future of technology from a recent conference run by a California think tank called Singularity University: 3-D printing of everything from prosthetic legs to organs; iPhone heart tests; new forms of life, organic and not-so-much.

But this story concerns an age-old question raised by the conference with new urgency: Is the fear of machines making most humans obsolete a reality at last?

WILL.I.AM, musician: It’s just going and it’s going. It’s so scary.

PAUL SOLMAN:, lead singer of the Black Eyed Peas, is also director of creative innovation at Intel and someone who worries about the so-called digital divide between those who knows how to capitalize on technology and those who don’t have a clue.

WILL.I.AM: We use the concept of “Star Trek,” but no one ever thinks about the people that “Star Trek” left behind in the ghettos. It was like, what was the life like for the people that “Star Trek” left? They never even put a perspective on homeboy’s family with the little visor. So technology can go either way, right?

It can be the prize for humanity, the thing that we created, like, whoa, check this out, or it could be the doom.

LYNN TILTON, professional investor: How many people, how many families, how many children will be left behind in the process?

PAUL SOLMAN: Conference attendee Lynn Tilton, a professional investor with a stake in more than 70 American manufacturing firms, was also worried — less about homeboys than the factory workers she employs.

LYNN TILTON: You’ve got to take people along with you where you go, and, frankly, if there is no work for Americans in the industrial base, you’re leaving a lot of people behind as you’re heading to the moon.

PAUL SOLMAN: Now, this lament is as old as the hills, the hills of Rome, in fact, and its first century Emperor Vespasian, who built the Coliseum. But he built it without the help of labor-saving technology to move heavy columns that had been invented, but that Vespasian quashed, because it would displace manual labor.

“How will it be possible to feed the populace?” the historian Suetonius reports him to have said.

The most famous anti-automatons were England’s 19th century Luddites, who sabotaged the textile machinery that was displacing them. But instead of grinding to a halt, technology simply switched to ever newer gears. And, today, we have sneakers, for example, being printed in 3-D, without a stitch of labor.

CARL BASS, CEO, Autodesk: What you have is molten plastic. And it goes down layer by layer about a hundredth, two-hundredths of an inch at a time, and it builds it up.

PAUL SOLMAN: High-tech CEO Carl Bass says jobs like making sneakers aren’t just leaving the U.S., but leaving the whole planet, as machines inexorably take over.

CARL BASS: Like, you can now go to lights-out factories, where robots do almost all of the work.

PAUL SOLMAN: And lights out? Why is it called lights out?

CARL BASS: Because you really don’t need lighting in a place that is run by robots.

PAUL SOLMAN: The key to the current speedup in automation is software.

Yale senior Max Uhlenhuth’s technology, which counts and identifies the trees in the forest by algorithm, displaces the human beings who for centuries have trudged in and done the job by hand.

MAX UHLENHUTH, SilviaTerra: My company is just me and my co-founder right now. It’s just two people, and, right now, we’re doing the largest, most comprehensive forest inventory ever done by man. It seems as though some time in my lifetime, there will be very little work left for humans to do.

PAUL SOLMAN: At least, very little paying work for humans who aren’t really smart and highly educated.

And that worries economists like Richard Freeman.

RICHARD FREEMAN, economist: We don’t want it to be that there’ll 20 or 30 billionaires controlling everything, and the rest of us struggling for the one or two jobs that are out there.

PAUL SOLMAN: But professional futurists like Ray Kurzweil, whom we interviewed remotely by something called Teleportec, insist that technology is making everyone rich.

RAY KURZWEIL, futurist: I don’t agree that there’s a have-have-not divide. You know, 20 years ago, if you took out a cell phone in a movie, that was a signal that you are a member of the power elite. Today, there are five billion or six billion cell phones. All of them will be smartphones within a few years.

In fact, anybody with a device like this or any of these devices is carrying around billions of dollars of capability circa 20 or 30 years ago.

PAUL SOLMAN: The conference mantra, high-tech as cornucopia machine, churning out more than enough to go around.

Singularity’s chairman, Peter Diamandis.

PETER DIAMANDIS, chairman, Singularity University: Last century, if you had a watch and I had a hunk of gold, and I traded you, now you had a hunk of gold and I had a watch. This century is all about, if you have an idea and I have an idea and we trade, you have two ideas and I have two ideas.

PAUL SOLMAN: But most Americans are now worried that they’re not going to have any meaningful role to play in the world to come.

PETER DIAMANDIS: I’m sad about that, but I am passionate about giving them the tools for free to be able to do those things, because the — it’s about living into a life of possibility.

RICHARD FREEMAN: This is a very optimistic group that is pushing for technology which will make us all a million times better off. I don’t think they actually think all that much about how it will get distributed. That’s not their business. That’s the business of another set of people in this society, who I think have not done a very good job of worrying about that problem.

PAUL SOLMAN: Richard Freeman means politicians, businesspeople, and his fellow economists.

RICHARD FREEMAN: You have to think of ways of distributing job opportunities and the ownership so that everybody has a good stake.

PAUL SOLMAN: Singularity’s Vivek Wadhwa agrees.

VIVEK WADHWA, Singularity University: We will have to learn how to share. We will have enough to feed the whole world and to look after our people. The question is, will we have the greedy investment bankers and the greedy politicians trying to hoard it all for themselves? If we do, we will have social upheaval.

PAUL SOLMAN: Not surprisingly, Wadhwa, who oversees academic programs at Singularity and also teaches at Stanford, Duke and Emory, thinks ever higher education is key.

VIVEK WADHWA: One of the problems in America is that we believe that education ends when you graduate from college. Wrong. In the new world, in the new era of technology, we’re going to have to realize that education begins when you graduate, when you join the work force.

We have to keep our skills current. We have to keep learning. We have to keep adapting to technology. That’s how we’re going to create employment.

PAUL SOLMAN: Employment for the one-third of us who have a college degree, but what about the two-thirds who don’t? Enter companies like Motion Math, trying to bring the basics to everyone via software, in the form of mobile apps featuring fish, for example, who eat numbers.

MAN: In this case, three.

PAUL SOLMAN: As you clear various levels, the game gets more challenging.

MAN: All the way up to very large numbers, subtraction and negative numbers, really tough.

PAUL SOLMAN: Co-founder Gabriel Adauto worries not about putting teachers out of work, but about getting their digitally undereducated students into the game.

GABRIEL ADAUTO, co-founder, Motion Math: The digital divide is a big problem. Although national unemployment is high, we’re having trouble finding the engineers we need in our small company.

PAUL SOLMAN: And those engineers, says partner Jacob Klein, will be part of the Motion Math mission.

JACOB KLEIN, Motion Math: The kids who play our games are going to have better math skills, they’re going to be more likely to master engineering skills that will make them employable in the future. It’s a long-term strategy, but I think creating better science, technology, engineering, math education is really the route of solving the digital divide.

PAUL SOLMAN: To Vivek Wadhwa, budding entrepreneurs like Klein and Adauto are themselves examples of the high-tech cornucopia machine.

VIVEK WADHWA: Right now, the apps economy, building up the applications for devices like this, employs half-a-million Americans. It came out of nowhere. So what’s going to happen is that the convergence of these technologies will create jobs in areas we can’t even think of.

PAUL SOLMAN: But maybe not jobs for people without skills that most us — let’s face it — don’t yet have, assuming we ever will.

JEFFREY BROWN: Online, you can watch Paul’s earlier stories about the California think tank Singularity University. One report is about technology’s next feats, including on-demand kidneys, robot sex — yes — and more. The other is on the potential downsides of innovation, such as personalized bioterror attacks.