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Martin Ford, Globally Renowned Writer, Best-selling Author, Keynote, Futurist

This week, Stephen Ibaraki has an exclusive interview with Martin Ford.

Martin FordMartin Ford is the founder of a Silicon Valley-based software development firm and the author of two books: The New York Times Bestselling, "Rise of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of a Jobless Future", (winner of the 2015 Financial Times/McKinsey Business Book of the Year Award and translated into 19 languages) and "The Lights in the Tunnel: Automation, Accelerating Technology and the Economy of the Future".Book Cover He has over 25 years experience in the fields of computer design and software development. He holds a computer engineering degree from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor and a graduate business degree from the University of California, Los Angeles.

He has written for publications including The New York Times, Fortune, Forbes, The Atlantic, The Washington Post, Harvard Business Review, and The Financial Times. He has also appeared on numerous radio and television shows, including NPR and CNBC. Martin is a frequent keynote speaker on the subject of accelerating progress in robotics and artificial intelligence — and what these advances mean for the economy, job market and society of the future.

To listen to the interview, click on this MP3 file link


Interview Time Index (MM:SS) and Topic

:00:31: Can you share some key takeaways from your book, The Lights In the Tunnel: Automation, Accelerating Technology and the Economy of the Future (2009)?
"....The basic idea of the book was that artificial intelligence and robotics was ultimately going to have a big impact on human employment. What I proposed in the book was we would need something along the lines of a guaranteed income. I proposed some modifications to make it more feasible, but I do think that is what lies in our future...."

:01:14: Can you share some key takeaways from your second book, Rise of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of a Jobless Future (2015)?
"....Essentially that book is a refinement of the first book, the ‘Lights in the Tunnel’, a book I self-published in 2009. Over the five years or so between the two books, the issue did get a lot more visibility and both my book and the general trend became much more prominent. That led to the opportunity to write this second book....The first book was more of a thought experiment and a bit speculative - I was imagining what would happen if automation really took hold; whereas in the second book I tried to ground it more and have lots of graphs and data showing that these trends are already underway and having impact. I also tried to provide many more real-world examples of actual technologies or start-up companies that were working in these areas producing actual results...."

:03:09: You are in high demand as a keynote speaker. From your travels, can you share some of the top questions you have received and your responses to them?
"....The number one question is, 'What can people do about this? What should they do as individuals or what should their kids do in order to remain relevant?' I think that is an important question, but whenever I answer that, I always try to push people to think a little bit more broadly than that because it's not going to be enough that select individuals and their kids are going to be okay. We obviously need to have a solution that's much more broad-based than that and that's why I try to answer that question. I also try to push people to think about what we should do as a society. I try to push it into the talk of public policy and the potential for a guaranteed income or so forth...."

:05:04: You are pursued by industry, business and the media because you were years ahead of anybody else in terms of making these predictions and it's going to impact industry and business out there and governments as well. Can you talk about any feedback from governments about your predictions and some of the materials in your books?
"....Most of the talks I give are to business groups or their conferences or universities (academic settings); there's a lot of interest out there and also in the media. Governments are a bit slower to come around. I am starting to see some interest in some places. Last December I was in The Hague in the Netherlands talking to the government ministries of that country. Later this year I'm going to Austria and talking to some of their ministries. So there is sort of an emerging interest among people they would call “technocrats” within governments. Just a couple of weeks ago I was also at the White House and did a live feed discussion with the Chief of Staff at the White House Office; I don't think that portends this massive initiative on the part of the White House but at least they are beginning to think about it and they thought that this was an issue important enough to actually have a discussion...."

:07:58: Many people are saying this is the year of the chatbots and intelligent agents etc., do you see that as having a big impact together with robots and all this other automation occurring?
"....I think that's one manifestation of this trend. It's not just about physical robots doing mechanical things, it's about machine learning algorithms, it's about chatbots. We shouldn't lose sight that this is a very broad-based trend and lots of things are going to intersect. I think eventually you'll see chatbots intersect with virtual reality so that rather than a chatbot on a device, you will be dealing with a full-fledged digital personality with a physical manifestation in virtual reality....So there are all kinds of ways in which different things intersect and that's going to drive this trend to really accelerate...."

:09:38: Do you have some thinking about your next book, maybe some theme that you are planning?
"....Between the first two books I wrote there were five years. It's only been about a year since I published the second book so I feel like I've still got some time. Right now I'm spending most of my time going around speaking about this and talking to many people and learning a lot. I get a lot of examples, I hear about different countries and how this is having impact so I imagine that all of that will shape my thinking if I do decide to write another book on this particular topic. On the other hand, maybe next time I'll want to delve into something else...."

:11:28: Have you thought about some of the ways it will impact the financial services industry?
"....I've talked to quite a few people in that industry and one thing that they are tremendously interested in (and to some extent concerned about) are the so-called robo-advisors. Eessentially these are smart software platforms that can do basic investment advisory....Also, most people are aware by now that most trading on Wall Street is now algorithmic....So there's a general trend here that says if you are a white collar worker and you are sitting in front of a computer doing something relatively routine, cranking out the same report, doing the same kind of analysis - that is increasingly going to be susceptible. A lot of those kinds of jobs are in the financial sector so it's a very broad-based impact...."

:14:36: Martin, because of the popularity of your books and also because of the fact that you were able to forecast very accurately the trends years in advance and have become this historical figure that people are following, it gives you access, maybe access that you never had before. Can you talk more about that?
"....I get to meet a lot of interesting people. I hear a lot of news including from companies of what's going on....I'm really pleased that influential people are beginning to take an interest in this. It would be really bad I think if everyone totally ignored it and wasn't thinking about it at all, but that isn't what I see. What I see is that influential, powerful, wealthy people (the people who need to begin to care and understand this in order for anything to happen), are certainly beginning to take notice and that's a very hopeful thing...."

:16:43: How can ICT executives act on your predictions?
"....What should a business do and what can we do as a society? For a business, part of my message is you've got to embrace this because it's going to be an enormous disruption. I think that it wouldn't be unreasonable to say that artificial intelligence is going to totally transform the way businesses compete....I think it's a critical issue just from a business competitive standpoint...."

:22:21: Do you think this is going to have an impact on financial inclusion?
"....I think it is one way to address inequality. Inequality is just becoming a big issue throughout the world, especially in developed countries. To some extent you can say inequality in and of itself is not necessarily a problem. The question is how are all the average people or the below average people doing? There is evidence to see that that is getting to be a real problem in a lot of countries. In the United States if you are not in the top 20 percent in the income distribution you could well be struggling. That's not good, we are talking about 80 percent of the people. So I think we need to address that. Not just because of inequality per se, but because we need to ensure that everyone in our society has at least a decent lifestyle of living in a society that is as advanced and as wealthy as ours and has the technological capabilities that we have; we should not have people living on the streets. We should not have people living under tremendous levels of stress regarding their basic economic security....I think we can moderate the extremes...."

:24:33: There are even some concerns that automation will remove the path that some developing countries traditionally had for wealth and that is cheap labour, but automation is cheaper than cheap labour and perhaps even more efficient. Can you comment?
"....Developing countries, the path to wealth has always been the factories. People take these jobs that many people consider to be sweatshop jobs but they are better than the alternative to those people and that's how they begin moving up that ladder. However, we are already seeing companies like Nike that have factories in Indonesia for example, where you've got all these very unskilled, low wage workers, they are moving heavily towards automation. In some cases, they are bringing the factories back to the developed world but then of course they are automated....It's hard for a factory in a remote third world location to compete with that because of the distance to markets, etc., and that's a trend I think is going to make it very difficult for those countries that have not gotten on that path to prosperity yet to accomplish, so we need to need to rethink that. How are these countries going to succeed in the future?...."

:27:02: You've got so many different talents. You founded a software company. Agility is key today whether with a start-up or launching a new product or service within a larger enterprise. The start-up mentality is required. Can you talk more about that and what you see are the key steps for successful start-ups or for enterprises when producing innovations to keep them competitive?
"....I think the key is to be very open-minded and as an individual to be educated broadly. We are seeing that opportunities are not necessarily just the technical issue. You really need to understand society and the way it works and the economy and are going to have to seize these opportunities. For example, you look at the guys who started the companies like Uber and AirBnB, and these are not really technology things they are 'how can you solve a problem in the real world?'...."

:29:15: We talked about the success of your books and how you innovated ahead of time in terms of thought leadership and you shared some of the attributes required for companies or start-ups to be successful. Are there any other areas particularly related to computing that you think need to be brought into focus for discussion?
"....There are lots of areas, like virtual reality. If you look at the trends in technology, there are a lot of things coming together. Artificial intelligence, machine learning are probably the biggest things that are happening right now with the biggest potential for disruption. I also think that it's very important to think about how these trends intertwine with other important things. Obviously the whole world is not just about technology. I worry a lot about climate change for example....So I really think that if we want to solve these problems we need to think more holistically. We need to think about all of these things so that people whose whole life is worrying about climate change had better be thinking about inequality too, and what technology means for the future and how inequality could be a lot worse if we don’t really address this. I'd really like to see a lot more interaction between the people who are focused on these various trends because they are all going to unfold at the same time...."
:32:33: Can you share some stories of challenges you've faced and how you were able to solve them?
"....My father was in the military so we moved pretty much every year and I guess that was a challenge for me, growing up and always being in a different school and a different environment. I think the impact on me was in both positive and negative ways I suppose so I’ve always been a person who is very comfortable with variety. Maybe that has in some ways equipped me for the world that's more turbulent and where things change more rapidly....When I was in high school I read a book called The Soul of a New Machine, by Tracy Kidder. At the time it was a very important book and won the Pulitzer Prize. It was to me a fascinating book and one of the reasons that I decided to go into computer engineering....Even at an early age I was always very attracted by books and I was fascinated by the idea that I might someday write it book, even back then. I think it's interesting how things have sort of come together and now I've actually written a book of my own....Part of the reason I began thinking about this issue of artificial intelligence and automation is that I saw in my small business the impact it was having...."

:38:17: You have many interests. Are there any others that you want to talk about??
"....I'm someone that reads a lot. I read about everything and I'm really interested in the environment and climate change. I'm interested in history and what it means for the future so I read very broadly. Other than that I really enjoy traveling. I do a lot of traveling and now fortunately I'm really lucky to go on a lot of speaking engagements all over the world. Whenever I travel I try to get out and see these places that I'm traveling to and spend at least part of my time being a tourist, because I think that it's really important to see different cultures and different people who speak different languages, and really understand it in a holistic way if you want to understand how this is unfolding everywhere....I think it's really important to learn about the world and to grab every opportunity you have to learn about everything basically, and that's one of the things that puts you in a better position to really deal with the kind of disruptive change that I think we are going to see over the next couple of decades...."

:40:48: You've already described many facets in your history of life. If you went back even further to the age of 4 and onwards, are there any other milestones that you think were pivotal in your life journey?
"....Certainly moving to the United States was a big deal. I don't know what my life would have been like if I'd stayed in the United Kingdom, but I do think this is a country that offers tremendous opportunities....I didn't come from a wealthy family, my father was a non-commissioned Air Force officer so the access to public education and financial aid and all of that was really important to me. I utilized that both at the University of Michigan and later at UCLA, so I'm a huge proponent of making public education accessible and making sure that we preserve our great public universities in the United States....I think having my own business and sort of leveraging that into some level of freedom to have a little bit more control over my life than someone might have if they were working for someone else was also really important...."

:43:11: If we were to expand the topic area, do you see any broader challenges facing us today and any other solutions you propose?
"....All of these challenges kind of intersect, certainly the technology trend that I'm talking about. Even if you don't buy into that completely and are skeptical about the idea that automation is going to eliminate a lot of jobs, it’s undeniable that the world is becoming more and more unequal (at least in advanced countries it’s becoming more unequal). That is clearly leading to some real problems....Technology is going to keep driving that to more and more extremes if we don't do something about it and that's going to result in all kinds of turbulence and undermine the ability to solve other problems, things like climate change or that many countries are basically running out of water....This is just a huge problem and it's not something we should minimize...."

:46:22: From your extensive speaking, travels, and work, can you share some stories (perhaps amusing, surprising, unexpected, or amazing).
"....China was amazing to me because this country has made such extraordinary progress....More than other places, a lot of the questions that I got in China when I was speaking were more entrepreneurial. They were ‘how can we start a business to leverage these technologies? How can I start a robotics start-up?’....I don't necessarily have dramatic stories to tell you, but I think it's a fascinating experience...."

:50:04: If you were conducting this interview, what questions would you ask, and then what would be your answers?
"....The biggest question is: What do we do as a society about this and how do we bring about that change?...."

:54:09: Martin, with your demanding schedule, we are indeed fortunate to have you come in to do this interview. Thank you for sharing your deep experiences with our audience.