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Could Artificial Intelligence Create an Unemployment Crisis?

Could Artificial Intelligence Create an Unemployment Crisis?, illustration

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Advances in artificial intelligence and robotics will have significant implications for evolving economic systems.

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James Lundblad

I think the Modern Monetary Theory (aka MMT) economists have proposed one possible solution to this problem in the form of a Job Guarantee pool rather than an Unemployment pool to managed demand in the economy and price stability. I am very interested in what you think of this and the work of Bill Mitchell et al.

Jim Cross

It seems like there need to be a major transformation in the politics in United States if 50+% of the population becomes unemployable. I am wondering how you see all of that playing out.

Unfortunately I think probably we will be need to test some kind of severe economic meltdown before we reach a consensus that we may just need to pay people even if they do not work.

Luke Lee

Excellent article and I agree increased IT efficiency in robotics, various software applications, and electronic transaction systems usually leads to replacing rather than creating jobs in production lines or supply chains. However, at the same time, I wonder why few have considered the increasingly unfair conditions for competition between big companies and small- and medium-sized companies (SMBEs) in the dominant 2-D (one-to-multiple based) supply chain processes constructed from ancient point-to-point (or 1-D) supply chain networks in the recent IT revolution. These new competitive conditions killed jobs in the market on a massive scale, along with achieving their overt aim of raising barriers to market entry or to survival for SMBEs themselves. Moreover, a vicious cycle for jobs has already been formed between them and aggravated further the unemployment situation. If we could break down this vicious cycle, I believe there might be a strong solution for jobs. I would suggest you also take a look at this article: How a 3-D Supply Chain Process System Could Revolutionize Business


A Basic Income Guarantee could never work - if the rate of unemployment boils over, do you really think business owners are going to submit to an extreme tax policy when they can just move elsewhere? Hell no! The State couldn't possibly afford a Basic Income policy for long. The only long term solution is the abolition of capitalism: a complete change in existing social relations so that we live in a world where technology works for us as a race, and not us for it.


Martin, you make an excellent case for technological unemployment. Call me convinced that a significant amount of work will be automated that even those not directly affected have an interest in solving the problem of securing incomes for the unemployable.

I'd love to hear more about how to take some of these politically unfeasible solutions and make them feasible. For example, are there policies we could pass now, because the structural unemployment is comparatively small, that could then grow with the problem? I'm thinking the same way Social Security was once a small program that has since grown into significant economic impact now that we enjoy the awesome gains of lower mortality and raised life expectancy medical technology has achieved in the interim. Perhaps expanding disability to include loss of job due to automation?


No, what we need are fewer unproductive people. If you can't produce, then you have no right to reproduce.


Scientific discovery never retreats. There is a an Asian/American Team of Robotics Engineers working on the next generation of free thinking robots which can emulate all the facial/body emotional characteristics. We went from the Wrightsbrothers to the Moon in 69 yrs. Automation/Robotics/Bio Engineering are advancing exponentially. We as a society have to come together and start engineering a new social reallity devoid of politics. A greater challenge will concern the global social/economic/geopolitical implications of these scientific advancements and their current pace. Frank F. McHugh

James Lundblad

The government must be the employer of last resort in a situation where productivity is very high and fewer people are required to produce goods and services, otherwise there will not be insufficient demand to support the economy. As the MMT economists (Mosler, Kelton, Galbraith, Mitchell, Wray) point out, it is not necessary for the government as the issuer of the currency to tax or borrow in order to pay for goods and services. The only constraint is on real resources and human productivity to avoid inflation should demand be too high, then taxes and/or reduced government spending should reduce demand.

Roland Crespo

I agree with Martin Ford's ideas. Being a systems developer, I have personally, albeit unknowingly, at least at first, help replace tens of thousands of workers by automating processes.

I also agree that there will need to be a basic guaranteed income, that is assuming we keep the idea of money at all. if automation injects value into society and 3D printing, robotics and, eventually, molecular manufacturing do the heavy lifting then our only job will be consumption.

I have no problem with this. In fact, I think it will be a much more fulfilling future for the entire race. The issue will be transitioning and I would love to hear more from Martin in that area. I believe this is a national discussion that we must have and one that should have started long ago. There are no plans on the table other than Obama's recent speech to move high school to six years and include a two-year associate's degree in computer science.

Also, I do not agree at all with the political comments made earlier about employers moving jobs elsewhere. Saying that clearly underscores that this individual does not understand enough about the situation surrounding the rise of automation. He or she may well have been quoting old time labor. Both Martin Ford and Eric Drexler discuss that the products of automation will be substantially better in both function and cost to ever consider for a single second that manufactures will move production "off-shore". There is no more "off-shore". And these new techniques will only appear there as well because they are entirely too useful to be without. Maybe they might use NASA's new warp drive to go to another planet to pursue these ridiculous ideas through the rape of indigenous populations, I suppose.

Likewise, the eugenics comment that the right to reproduce is somehow linked to the ability to contribute to a society. Ridiculous and unworthy of the ACM whose ethical policy has never been one to leave anybody behind.

So, let's have this discussion. Maybe it starts with a symposium - a Lights in the Tunnel conference modeled after the 100-year starship project? We need to have this sooner rather than later because the pace of change will replace everyone. This December is the DARPA Robotics Challenge.

It is only a matter of when this AI thing happens. And it will happen with public funds or private because everyone knows the first one to achieve this goal wins the planet. Maybe the galaxy. By having the conversation, maybe we can control how it's implemented.

CACM Administrator

The following letter was published in the Letters to the Editor in the November 2013 CACM (
--CACM Administrator

My essay "The World Without Work," included in the 1997 book Beyond Calculation, curated by Peter J. Denning for ACM's golden anniversary, weighed many of the issues Martin Ford addressed more recently in his Viewpoint "Could Artificial Intelligence Create an Unemployment Crisis?" (July 2013) where he wrote, "Many extremely difficult issues could arise, including finding ways for people to occupy their time and remain productive in a world where work was becoming less available and less essential." I would go further; with the likely advances in artificial intelligence and robotics, work will eventually not be essential at all, at least not for physical sustenance. Our stubbornly high levels of unemployment, likely to rise dramatically in the future, already reflect this prospect.

Certain classes of people (such as the elderly, the young, and the disabled) are generally already not expected to work. Why would anyone be required to work at all? Why not just have the government provide some basic level of support for the asking, with work something people do only to go beyond that basic level or for their own satisfaction? We are not far from this being feasible, solving the unemployment problem in a single stroke. The cost, though enormous, would be covered by harvesting the additional wealth created by society's overall increased productivity and lowered costs, the so-called Wal-Mart effect, taken to the limit. Though tax rates would have to increase, after-tax purchasing power would not have to decrease. The remaining work would be more highly compensated, as it should be.

What work is already not being done? Consider the prompt filling of potholes in our streets. If we can have self-driving cars, we can certainly have automated pothole-fillers.

Ford also said, "If, someday, machines can match or even exceed the ability of a human being to conceive new ideas... then it becomes somewhat difficult to imagine just what jobs might be left for even the most capable human workers." But some jobs will never be automated. Consider ballet dancers and preachers. With ballet dancers the audience is captivated by how gracefully they overcome the physical constraints of their bodies. An automated ballet dancer, no matter how graceful, would be nowhere near as interesting as a human one. Preachers inspire us by establishing emotional rapport; no robot, no matter how eloquent, will ever do that.

Paul W. Abrahams
Deerfield, MA

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