Can You Compete with Baxter? Yes, Says Vivek Wadhwa

BY Paul Solman  October 24, 2012 at 12:58 PM EST


Throughout history, technology has caused change and disruption in the workplace, as when auto workers were replaced by creatures like these. But new higher quality jobs will emerge, argues Vivek Wadhwa. Photo by Stockbyte via Getty Images.

I’ve reported extensively on technology and unemployment, most recently here. Now check out Baxter,” a robot you can buy for the price of a small car.

Making Sense

Baxter underscores the insecurity of the traditional factory job. But to futurist Vivek Wadhwa, featured in the story link above, the greater threat is to China than to us. Here’s an extended excerpt from our interview with him at a Singularity University event earlier this year. I asked him if he wasn’t worried about jobs in the light of rapidly advancing technology.

Vivek Wadhwa: I’m worried about jobs. I don’t know where they’re going to come from. What I do know is that in every generation we’re worried about it. We worried about it when people moved off the farms and came to the cities. We worried about it when the telephone operators, when the telephone exchanges were automated. We worried about it when we had the railroad. We worried about it when we had the automobile… Because as we automated more and more we were more and more worried about where the jobs would come from. But what happened was that we moved to a higher realm. We have now created higher quality jobs.

We have the highest quality of living today than we’ve ever had in any generation, in any century ever before. We live fantastic lives compared to our ancestors, compared to our grandparents. That’s because of technology. So yes, technology is going to cause disruption and cause changes but there will be new jobs that we haven’t even imagined.

Paul Solman: I believe that but I’m genuinely worried that the bifurcation between the people who are like you or me for that matter. But 70 percent of Americans don’t get a four-year college degree and that percentage may be growing. They’re out of the picture, no?

Vivek Wadhwa: The workforce needs to keep adapting. We need to have constant training. 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 realize that education begins when you gradate and you join the workforce. 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 crack unemployment.

Paul Solman: But aren’t you sympathetic to the despair I feel that most Americans aren’t going to do that?

Vivek Wadhwa: What do we do about it? One thing is for sure: we’re going to be working a lot less in the future. We may have 20-hour work weeks. We may have more time for leisure. It really is up to our leadership to see if we can distribute the success, you know distribute what we’ve gained equally amongst the masses.

Paul Solman: But are you hopeful that we will actually figure out ways to share?

Vivek Wadhwa: If we don’t we will have major upheaval and unrest. We will have to learn how to share. We will have to learn how to distribute prosperity because we are entering a time when we will have abundance and prosperity, there won’t be shortages of food, there won’t be shortages of water, there won’t be shortages of energy. (Remember, Wadhwa is a charter member of the technologically starry-eyed Singularity University.) 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 who are going to horde it all for themselves? If we do, we will have social upheaval, social unrest and upheaval. I’m optimistic that we won’t, that we will evolve in the society and learn how to share this, that we’ll work 20-hour work weeks, and people won’t go hungry, and they’ll have good housing, they’ll have enough food and living that they can now pursue intellectual pursuits like what you used to see in Star Trek, and in science fiction movies. I’m an optimist.

Paul Solman: But you’ve got to admit that’s not where America is headed at the moment.

Vivek Wadhwa: Well, it has to change. We have to adapt and America does adapt.

We at Making Sen$e are working on a story to explain where the monthly unemployment numbers come from. To do so, we are looking for interviewees who have worked on the Current Population Survey (CPS; household survey) and/or the Current Employment Statistics survey (CES; establishment survey). Are you a former surveyor? Do you know one? If so, we want to hear from you! Please email us at businessdesk@newshour.org. Be sure to include your contact information. Very much obliged

As usual, look for a second post early this afternoon. But please don’t blame us if events or technology make that impossible. Meanwhile, let it be known that this entry is cross-posted on the Making Sen$e page, where correspondent Paul Solman answers your economic and business questions