TED Radio Hour
7:01 am
Fri March 15, 2013

Are Droids Taking Our Jobs?

Originally published on Mon December 16, 2013 11:57 am

Part 3 of the TED Radio Hour episode Do We Need Humans?

About Andrew McAfee's TEDTalk

Robots and algorithms can now build cars, write articles, and translate texts — all work that once required a human. So what will we humans do for work? Andrew McAfee looks at recent labor data to say: We ain't seen nothing yet.

About Andrew McAfee

Andrew McAfee studies how information technology affects businesses and society. McAfee's research investigates how IT changes the way companies perform, organize themselves and compete. At a higher level, his work also investigates how computerization affects competition, society, the economy and the workforce. He's a principal research scientist at the Center for Digital Business at the MIT Sloan School of Management. His books include Enterprise 2.0 and Race Against the Machine (with Erik Brynjolfsson).

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

GUY RAZ, HOST:

Hey, Andrew.

ANDREW MCAFEE: Hi.

RAZ: Do you speak any languages?

MCAFEE: I speak a bit of French.

RAZ: Oh, okay. Let me just do a real-time translation on my iPhone app, here.

RAZ: Our next guest is another MIT professor named Andrew McAfee.

(SOUNDBITE OF IPHONE APP FRENCH TRANSLATION)

RAZ: That's not bad.

MCAFEE: It's getting there.

RAZ: It's getting there.

RAZ: Andrew McAfee, we should mention, studies how technology, like this little app ...

MCAFEE: Yeah.

RAZ: ... affects economies.

MCAFEE: I've been reliably assured, by people at Google that within a few years, you'll be able to communicate fairly seamlessly when you travel with people who don't share a language with you. And right now we think that's weird to imagine going to different country, talking into our phones, and having a conversation ...

RAZ: Yeah, that's weird.

MCAFEE: ...But how long ago did we think it was weird to be walking down the street talking to apparently nobody, and now we all do that all the time because of our smart phones, and our Bluetooth headsets, and whatnot. So, the weird becomes the normal with remarkable speed these days.

RAZ: Andrew McAfee spends a lot of time thinking about that place between the weird and the normal; between technology that's really useful and cool - like that $3 language app - and technology that might be a little too good. Kind of like in that movie WALL-E.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "WALL-E")

RAZ: You know, the little robot.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "WALL-E")

MCAFEE: WALL-E's an incredibly sweet movie.

RAZ: And WALL-E, you know, saves planet Earth from rampant consumerism, technology gone awry, basically. It's sweet but it's kind of terrifying.

MCAFEE: It's terrifying is a sense, that vision of, you know, morbidly obese people just consuming fast food and descending into shallow materialism, is kind of a chilling vision of the future.

RAZ: Accurate?

MCAFEE: Let's hope not. That would be a bad way for us to go.

RAZ: Yeah. Anyway, I mean, a lot of what you study has to do with what robots - not unlike WALL-E - are doing to the American workforce.

MCAFEE: Well, if you look around at the economy, you start to see a lot of jobs that are squarely in the sights of the machines of today and tomorrow.

(SOUNDBITE OF "60 MINUTES" BROADCAST)

STEVE KROFT: The percentage of Americans with jobs is at a 20-year low ...

... Just a few years ago if you traveled by air, you would've interacted with a human ticket agent ...

... Bank tellers have given way to ATMs ...

... Sales clerks are surrendering to e-commerce, and switchboard operators and secretaries to voice-recognition technologies ...

MCAFEE: Either with mental work or with physical work, if you find yourself following instructions, doing much the same thing over and over again, that's a job that's squarely in the sights of automation.

RAZ: So here's Andrew McAfee's TED Talk where he asks the main question behind all of this ...

(SOUNDBITE OF ANDREW MCAFEE TED TALK)

MCAFEE: Are the droids taking our jobs? And there's some evidence that they are. The great recession ended when American GDP resumed its kind of slow steady march upward. Corporate profits are higher than they've ever been, and business investment in gear, in equipment, in hardware, and software is at an all-time high. So the businesses are getting out their checkbooks. What they're not really doing is hiring. Just in the past couple years, we've seen digital tools display skills and abilities that they never, ever had before and that kind of eat deeply into what we human beings do for a living. Let me give you a couple examples. Throughout all of history, if you wanted something written, a report or an article, you had to involve a person. Not anymore. This is an article that appeared in "Forbes Online" a while back about Apple's earnings. It was written by an algorithm.

COMPUTERIZED VOICE: Forbes earnings preview. Apple. Analysts have become increasingly bullish on Apple in the month leading up to the company's second-quarter earnings announcement, scheduled for Tuesday, April 24, 2012.

MCAFEE: And it's not decent, it's perfect.

COMPUTERIZED VOICE: The consensus earnings per share estimate has moved up from 95 ...

MCAFEE: We really appreciated that.

RAZ: One of the guys who invented that algorithm, Kristian Hammond.

KRISTIAN HAMMOND: I'm the CTO and one of the founders of Narrative Science.

RAZ: It's a company that designs technology to do something you used to need a person for, to take a bunch of information and turn it into a story. So it's not like this technology can only write about stocks, Hammond thinks that ...

HAMMOND: Anywhere where there's a spreadsheet, any place where you get a chart, a graph, or a table, you know, the performance of your sales force, logistics, any organization you do business with. So the electric company, your cell phone company, what's going on with your usage and what you might be able to do to improve. All the areas where we are given numbers and we long for that moment of communication, where it's like, could someone please tell me what this means? We should exist there too.

RAZ: And Kris says he runs into people everyday who for reasons they don't quite understand, are kind of unsettled by this.

HAMMOND: It's because they want to be - we want to be special. And when you look at the ability to express things in language, that seems to be one of our special things. I mean when - you know, if you would say, what separates us from the animals? One of the things would be language use. And it's just that that happens to be not something that will now separate us from machines.

RAZ: So if you're freaking out right now or maybe you're not - maybe this doesn't worry you - but if it does, there is a light at the end of this journey, I promise. Just a bit more pain first, just a bit.

This episode, my robot, my "frenemie" (ph), how our technology is changing the way we relate to each other. You're listening to the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Guy Raz, back in a moment.

RAZ: It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Guy Raz. And we're talking about the promise and the peril of how we relate to technology. And that example we just heard - about an algorithm writing a coherent article, doing something most of us thought only humans could do - well in his TED Talk, Andrew McAfee described a future, like a near future, where robots will do a lot more than any of us imagine.

(SOUNDBITE OF ANDREW MCAFEE TED TALK)

MCAFEE: They're starting to flex their muscles in the physical world as well. I had the chance a little while back to ride in the Google autonomous car, which is as cool as it sounds.

(LAUGHTER)

MCAFEE: And I will vouch that it handled the stop-and-go traffic on US 101 very smoothly. There are about three and a half million people who drive trucks for a living in the United States. I think some of them are going to be affected by this technology. And right now, humanoid robots are still incredibly primitive. They can't do very much, but they're getting better quite quickly. And DARPA, which is the investment arm of the Defense Department, is trying to accelerate their trajectory. So in short, yeah, the droids are coming for our jobs. And managing that transition is going be the greatest challenge that our society faces. Voltaire summarized why. He said, work saves us from three great evils - boredom, vice, and need.

RAZ: That's scary, totally disruptive, and probably unstoppable. The potential for a huge oversupply of human labor with not much to do.

(SOUNDBITE OF ANDREW MCAFEE TED TALK)

MCAFEE: But despite this challenge, I'm personally, I'm still a huge digital optimist, and I am supremely confident that the digital technologies that we're developing now are going to take us into a utopian future, not a dystopian future. And to explain why, I want to pose kind of a ridiculously broad question. I want to ask what have been the most important developments in human history? It's a wonderful question to ask and to start an endless debate about, because some people are going to bring up systems in philosophy, in both the West and the East, that have changed how a lot of people think about the world. And then some other folk will say, actually what changes civilizations, what modifies them, and what changes people's lives are empires. So the great developments in human history are stories of conquest and of war. And then other people will say, no, actually the big developments are the founding of the world's major religions, which have changed civilizations and have changed and influenced how countless people are living their lives. And then, some cheery soul usually always pipes up and says, hey don't forget about plagues.

(LAUGHTER)

MCAFEE: There are some optimistic answers to this question, so some people will bring up the Age of Exploration and the opening up of the world. Others will talk about intellectual achievements, in disciplines like math, that have helped us get a better handle on the world, and other folk will talk about periods when there was there was a deep flourishing of the arts and sciences. So this debate will go on and on. It's an endless debate, and there's no conclusive, no single answer to it. But, if you're a geek like me, you say, well, what do the data say? And you start to do things like graph things that we might be interested in, the total worldwide population, for example, or some measure of social development or the state of advancement of a society. So, when you do this, and when you plot the data, you pretty quickly come to some weird conclusions. You conclude, actually, that none of these things have mattered very much.

(LAUGHTER)

MCAFEE: They haven't done a darn thing to the curves. There has been one story, one development in human history that bent the curve, bent it just about 90 degrees, and it is a technology story. The steam engine and the other associated technologies of the Industrial Revolution changed the world and influenced human history so much that in the words of the historian Ian Morris, they made mockery out of all that had come before. And they did this by infinitely multiplying the power of our muscles, overcoming the limitations of our muscles. Now what we're in the middle of now is overcoming the limitations of our individual brains and infinitely multiplying our mental power. How can this not be as big a deal as overcoming the limitations of our muscles?

So as I look around at all the evidence, and I think about the room that we have ahead of us, I become a huge digital optimist, and I start to think that we, right now, have the great, good fortune to be living at a time when digital technology is flourishing, when it is broadening and deepening and becoming more profound all around the world. So, yeah, the droids are taking our jobs, but focusing on that fact misses the point entirely. The point is that then we are freed up to do other things, and what we're going to do I am very confident, what we're going to do is reduce poverty and drudgery and misery around the world. I'm very confident we're going to learn live more lightly on the planet, and I am extremely confident that what we're going to do with our new digital tools is going to be so profound and so beneficial that it's going to make a mockery out of everything that came before.

(APPLAUSE)

RAZ: What if we do such a good job at this that it makes us irrelevant?

MCAFEE: You know, it will make some workers irrelevant, and that I am concerned about. I am not concerned with technology making humanity irrelevant, making human connection irrelevant, making families irrelevant, making love irrelevant. I'm just not just bothered about that.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LA VIE EN ROSE)

LOUIS ARMSTRONG: (Singing) Hold me close and hold me fast...

RAZ: Andrew McAfee. He's a research scientist at MIT's Sloan School of Management. He and Eric Brynjolfsson, who also gave a TED Talk at TED 2013 in Long Beach, wrote the book "Race Against The Machine." You can see Andrew's full TED Talk at TED.NPR.org. What if we all looked like those people in WALL-E? You know, like a few hundred years from now? Maybe a hundred years from now? That'd be a problem.

MCAFEE: Yeah, that would be a bad outcome if ...

RAZ: Yeah.

MCAFEE: ... There is a wonderful guy, who spent his career at MIT, he's one of just the real institutions of the institute. His name was Norbert Wiener, and he had a great quote that the world of the future is not going to be a comfortable hammock, in which we lie down to be waited on by our robot slaves. I hope he's right, because the WALL-E vision of the future is exactly that; that we just have these comfortable hammocks, and our robot slaves take care of us and as a result, we literally get really fat and really lazy. Let's hope that's not the world we're headed into.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LA VIE EN ROSE")

ARMSTRONG: (Singing) ...and life will always be La vie en rose. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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