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The rise of the robots

Interview with Martin Ford

Martin Ford is a leading futurist, with over 25 years’ experience in computer design and software development, author of the New York Times bestseller “Rise of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of a Jobless Future, winner of the 2015 Financial Times and McKinsey Business Book of the Year Award.  


Two years ago you published the bestseller Rise of the Robots. What do you think will be the main practical benefits of Artificial Intelligence and in what areas?

There will be enormous practical benefits from Artificial Intelligence. Self-driving cars will be safer and will be able to save many lives. Robotics can make everything more efficient and cheaper. Almost everything is going to be transformed by robots. For example, AI can be used by doctors to make better diagnoses and develop better treatment plans. In some cases this has already happened. AI systems can do a better job in diagnosing particular diseases; in radiology, machines are better than human doctors at detecting tumours, and they will get even better. I don’t think that human doctors will disappear but they will increasingly work together with machines that serve as tools to provide  second opinions.


Why is technological progress different nowadays from how it was in the past?

The biggest thing that is happening is that with AI we have machines that are thinking, they have brain power. Nowadays, machines have begun to think in a much broader way: this means that they can substitute human beings in making decisions, solving problems and learning. Machine learning really is a disruptive technology: it has both positive and negative sides, just think of the impact on unemployment, which is the main focus of my book.


Which jobs are most vulnerable to automation?

For the foreseeable future, any kind of job that on some level is predictable. So, if you come to work and you do the same type of things again and again, and the things you did in the past are the same you’ll do in the future, your job is vulnerable to automation. Not only blue-collar jobs but also many white-collars jobs, even work performed by people with university degrees, not only by people with the most basic qualifications. For example, the work of radiologists, the medical doctors who read medical images, requires a tremendous amount of training but to a certain extent they will be replaced by machines.


Tesla CEO Elon Musk recently said that we need to regulate Artificial Intelligence before its too late. Do you agree with him?

Generally, I don’t think we should regulate to try to stop progress. I think there are some areas in which regulation is appropriate, for example when AI impacts on privacy, but in general I would say no. The day after Musk made those comments it was like a wake up call and everybody thought we were living in a Terminator movie. It’s not something to be taken lightly, it’s something that we will have to worry about someday, but it’s not something that is going to happen soon, it’s at least thirty or forty years away, maybe much longer than that. There are also many other considerations to keep in mind. For example the Western world is in competition with China when it comes to AI, we cannot go back, the last thing we should do is regulate in a way that slows things down. We should be aware of the concerns Musk raised, but I don’t think we should regulate.


Musk suggested potential ethical problems about AI and humans.

One of the problems about AI machine learning is what someone called the “Black box”: when systems sometimes take decisions and we don’t really know why and we don’t know what they are doing. In some areas they can include biases in their decision-making. But in general I don’t think that regulation is a good idea.


In Europe we have a greater sensitivity to privacy issues than in the US: do you know why?

I don’t know the reason, I guess it’s part of the culture: maybe here in the USA people are more interested in the benefits of sharing personal information with machines.

In your book you wrote about the problem of mass unemployment and the threat of a jobless future. Wont this be like some sort of dystopian nightmare? 

Some people think it is a nightmare but that won’t necessarily be the case. You can also imagine a world where people are free from work, where they have more time to stay with their families, a world without dangerous or unpleasant jobs. I know it may seem disturbing to people who are not used to the idea, but our challenge is to adapt to it, to adapt in a positive way: if we don’t succeed many people could be left behind.