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Hangout on Air: Robots, unemployment, and basic income

  • May 11, 2014 · 7:00 PM

The accelerating improvement in the dexterity, agility, versatility, and intelligence of robots raises a number of hard questions about the future of human society. Employees in increasing numbers of professions find themselves under threat of being displaced by robots, algorithms, and other AIs. The pace at which existing professions are being disrupted and transformed by new technology looks set to outstrip the speed at which humans can re-skill and re-train.

This London Futurists Hangout On Air assembles an international panel of writers who have important things to say on the subject of the future of work: James Hughes, Martin Ford, Gary Marchant, and Marshall Brain. The panellists will be debating: 

• Are contemporary predictions of technological unemployment just repeating short-sighted worries from the 19th century "Luddites"?

• What scope is there for a "Basic Income Guarantee" to address the needs of everyone who will struggle to find work in the new age of smarter robots?

• What lessons can be learned from history, and from local experiments in different parts of the world?

• How soon should society be preparing for the kinds of major changes that new generations of robots will bring?

Live questions:

Viewers of the live broadcast on Google+ will be able to vote in real time on questions and suggestions to be discussed by the panellists as the Hangout proceeds. Give '+1' votes to the suggestions you most like.

Event hashtag:


Event logistics: 

This event will take place between 7pm and 8.30pm UK time on Sunday 11th May.

Click here to find these times in a different timezone.

You can view the event:

• On Google+ at, where you'll also be able to vote on questions to be submitted to the panellists 

• Via YouTube at

There is no charge to participate in this discussion.

Note: There is no central physical location for this meetup. However, you may consider meeting with a few friends in the same locality, and watching the event together.

Note also that panellists are subject to change, depending on personal circumstances nearer the time. 

About the panellists:

James Hughes, Executive Director of the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies

James Hughes, Ph.D., is a bioethicist and sociologist at Trinity College in Hartford Connecticut where he teaches health policy and serves as Director of Institutional Research and Planning. He holds a doctorate in sociology from the University of Chicago, where he also taught bioethics at the MacLean Center for Clinical Medical Ethics.

Dr. Hughes is author of Citizen Cyborg: Why Democratic Societies Must Respond to the Redesigned Human of the Future , and is working on a second book tentatively titled Cyborg Buddha. From[masked] he produced a syndicated weekly radio program, Changesurfer Radio.

He is a Fellow of the World Academy of Arts and Sciences, and a member of Humanity+, the Neuroethics Society, the American Society of Bioethics and Humanities and the Working Group on Ethics and Technology at Yale University.

Dr. Hughes speaks on medical ethics, health care policy and future studies worldwide.

Martin Ford, author of "Lights in the tunnel"

Martin Ford is the founder of a Silicon Valley-based software development firm. 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 Fortune, Forbes, The Atlantic, The Washington Post, Project Syndicate, The Huffington Post and The Fiscal Times.  He has also appeared on numerous radio and television shows, including NPR and CNBC.

He maintains a blog at that "offers random thoughts on what the economy of the future will look like".

Martin is the author of the ground-breaking 2009 book "Lights in the tunnel: Automation, Accelerating Technology and the Economy of the Future" - a book which has done so much to elevate discussion about the highly disruptive influence that accelerating technology is likely to have on our economy in the near future.

Washington Post opinion writer Matt Miller commented as follows on "Lights in the tunnel":

>>If (like me) you’re fascinated by futurist Ray Kurzweil’s arguments that accelerating technology makes this unfolding era truly different, Ford’s logic, and fears, will haunt you — and seem impossible to rule out. Is mass replacement of human work without the simultaneous creation of enough decently paid new work going to happen? If so, is the troubling inflection point 75 years away? Or two or three decades? If it’s the latter, what should we be doing about it?

“The central thesis of this book,” Ford writes, “is that, as technology accelerates, machine automation may ultimately penetrate the economy to the extent that wages no longer provide the bulk of consumers with adequate discretionary income and confidence in the future. If this issue is not addressed, the result will be a downward economic spiral.”

In essence, Ford is hypothesizing that Marx may just turn out to have been a little ahead of his time when he talked about capitalism’s “contradictions.” Eventually capital will concentrate in fewer and fewer hands (in tomorrow’s case, the robot owners’), and surging unemployment will combine with sagging wages to undermine the mass markets capitalism requires in order to function.<<

Gary Marchant, Professor of Emerging Technologies, Law & Ethics

Gary Marchant, Ph.D., J.D. is is the Lincoln Professor Emerging Technologies, Law and Ethics at the Sandra Day O'Connor College of Law at Arizona State University. He is also a Professor of Life Sciences at ASU and Executive Director of the ASU Center for the Study of Law, Science and Technology.

Professor Marchant has a a Ph.D. in Genetics from the University of British Columbia, a Masters of Public Policy degree from the Kennedy School of Government, and a law degree from Harvard.

Prior to joining the ASU faculty in 1999, he was a partner in a Washington, D.C. law firm where his practice focused on environmental and administrative law.

Professor Marchant teaches and researches in the subject areas of environmental law, risk assessment and risk management, genetics and the law, biotechnology law, food and drug law, legal aspects of nanotechnology, and law, science and technology.

Marshall Brain, Founder of How Things Work, and author of Robot Nation

Marshall Brain started How Stuff Works as a hobby in 1998 and saw it grow to be one of the top websites in the country. In 2007 Discovery Communications purchased for $250 million.

Marshall is also well known as the host of the show "Factory Floor" which appeared on the National Geographic channel.

Marshall is the author of the widely discussed Robotic Nation essays and the book Manna. In the essay Robotic Nation FAQ, Marshall gives the following answer to the question "Why did you write these articles? What is your goal?":

>>I firmly believe that the rapid evolution of computer technology (as described in Robotic Nation) will bring us smart robots starting in a 2030 time frame. These robots will take over approximately 50% of the jobs in the U.S. economy over the course of just a decade or two. Something on the order of 50 million people will be unemployed. See Robotic Nation for details.

The economy may adjust and invent new jobs for those 50 million unemployed workers, but it will not do so instantaneously. What we will have is a period of economic turmoil. All of those unemployed workers will be in a very bad spot. The economy as a whole will suffer from this turmoil and the downward economic spiral it causes. No one will benefit when this happens.

We are intelligent people living in a modern, high-tech society. Robots are inevitable. Instead of letting this robotic revolution happen uncontrollably and then reacting to the chaos that ensues, what I am proposing is that we look at the problem rationally and design a systematic solution. See Robotic Freedom for possible solutions.<<

Join or login to comment.

  • Peter M.

    Basic Income UK website: the movement has started.

    May 25, 2014

  • Peter M.

    2 · May 25, 2014

  • Kiran M.

    Jeremy Rifkin Zero Marginal Cost Society interview New Scientist

    1 · May 18, 2014

  • Kiran M.

    Algo board member for venture firm. What investment? The Algorithm will see you now...

    May 14, 2014

  • Khannea S.

    Yah Ok, fairly basic content.

    May 12, 2014

    • David W.

      Agreed, there's a long way to go to change public opinion on this topic. It will take time to build wider consensus (including what James Hughes called "consensus between left and right") on some of the more basic points, before we can expect agreement on actual changes in legislation/taxes.

      May 12, 2014

  • Julian S.

    Thought provoking

    May 12, 2014

  • linda m.

    A must see. Prof Wolff on global capitalism.

    May 12, 2014

  • Ted H.

    I didn't make my way as an entrepreneur by working 40 hours a week - I worked 90 hours a week for many years, to get to the state of owning my home and business freehold. I couldn't have done it on 40 hours a week.
    I have worked for companies I have owned for most of my life. Now I put most of my time into voluntary organisations.

    May 11, 2014

    • Ted H.

      Hi David
      I get that the basic income doesn't limit time.
      What I see happening is that the incentives of the market would still work to introduce scarcity. That is the fundamental issue with any market based system, it incentivises scarcity and devalues abundance.

      The point was made that some things remain truly scarce, but I challenge people to identify what, and the sorts of things that can be satisfactory substitutes. Looking at land area for example - if we take 500ft of the surface off the far side of the moon and use it to create habitats in earth orbit, we can provide an equivalent area to the current land surface on the planet. If we use the mass of the asteroids then we can easily provide every person with more land area than the most wealthy person on earth today.

      May 12, 2014

    • Ted H.

      Once one has exponential growth of a robotic means of production, with machines that can automate every aspect of the production and maintenance process of machinery, then the whole concept of markets is redundant, and all derivatives - aka money.

      And I get how hard it is to get over that conceptual barrier.
      Very few have made it.

      1 · May 12, 2014

  • linda m.

    Perhaps we should get rid of our current monetary system entirely. Instead make it so that minutes worked and tasks accomplished become the new money system. Quality tasks accomplished would have to be worth more than a minute worked to incentivise quality work and productivity. You would also need to require able bodied people under age 65 to work 8-10 hours per week. Everyone would get a standard benefit of 10,000 minutes a month to "spend" however you choose. Here is an example:

    If you go to work making widgets for 10 hours (600 minutes) and you complete 40 quality tasks you would get 5 minutes for each completed task X 40 completed tasks (200 minutes) so your total you would earn would be 800 minutes that day (13 hours 20 minutes)

    If you only completed 5 tasks your tally would be 625 minutes.

    If you completed a 100 tasks You would get 1100 minutes (18 hrs 20 minutes)

    This would be the productivity incentive.

    May 11, 2014

    • linda m.

      It would act like money in so far as you can trade your labor credits for someone else's labor. The difference is in the how much labor can you do to accumulate those credits. There are only so many hours in a week. Yes you could work 120 hours a week if you wanted to accumulate a lot of credits, but what for? If you hire someone to clean your house, walk your dog and mow your lawn, because you haven't got time to do those things yourself, would you really be gaining much from your excessive self imposed work load?
      If you guarantee everyone food a home and healthcare, I would think that most people would do what was required (8-10 hours/week) and possibly another 10-30 hours more to have enough credits to spend on the goods and services they want, but I doubt many would even want to work more than that. After all, you already would have a roof over your head and food on the table.

      May 11, 2014

  • Peter M.

    Very interesting discussion of the times ahead...

    May 11, 2014

  • Khannea S.

    #LonFut Topics discussed here may reverberate for centuries. Technological Unemployment may be the fly in the ointment of the new millenium.

    May 11, 2014

  • Peter M.

    Whatever can be automated will be automated:
    Call centres
    Fulfilment centres
    Transportation - cars rail, air, sea
    Law enforcement
    Elderly care
    Programmers :)
    Drug discovery
    Artists - musicians, writers, painters, sculptors
    etc. etc.

    May 11, 2014

    • Ted H.

      Anything can be automated, it's just a matter of time.
      It fundamentally changes the nature of capital.
      Everything changes.
      The politics of what is allowed to be automated and what isn't have been live for decades. I was in the thick of it 15 years ago, leading a team of software developers automating governmental processes. Very weird politics.
      Now I sit on the edge of it looking at the system as whole.

      1 · May 11, 2014

  • Kiran M.

    Amelia will take your BPO job now. Bot to kill outsourcing industry?

    May 10, 2014

  • Kiran M.

    Killer Robots debated at the UN

    May 9, 2014

  • Mala Mukherjee S.

    Soon the Swiss will vote about the introduction of a base income for everyone. Simultaneously we are voting for a new minimal salary of 4000 Swiss Francs. Which seams obscenely high, but if you have to pay a rent of 1500 CHF, compulsory healthcare of 800, taxes of 1500 CHF and your food costs 400 CHF, you're already either paying bills or eating. Everyone thinks Switzerland is a rich country, but there is poverty behind the nice façade. Where soup kitchens are full and people are standing in line at the Caritas shop / Tafel to get food for free. The base income is little enough to give an incentive to look for better work, but enough to help people who are doing their best (are highly qualified with job experience but e.g. just over 50) and are still struggling to eat. The base income will ease the pressure and open up resources to pursue further training, get a university education or just open a pub or be merry doing nothing.

    3 · May 6, 2014

  • William E.
    Jeremy Rifkin from Wharton Business School predicts the end of capitalism due to technology driven economy of collaborative commons…

    4 · April 28, 2014

    • Peter M.

      Bring on the Venus Project! http://www.thevenuspr...­

      1 · May 5, 2014

    • Mark G.

      Good call Peter - how many different types of Venus Projects can we imagine? If that number is low, can we use evolutionary design algorithms to create a set of optimal Venus Projects? :)

      1 · May 5, 2014

  • Ted H.

    The manna system is a possible scenario, except that it misses the point that as robots come on stream, they very rapidly drop the value of labour below the cost of maintenance and replacement (to borrow a couple of concepts from Marx).

    Money is fundamentally based in scarcity.
    Money cannot deal meaningfully with abundance.

    We are rapidly approaching the ability to deliver abundance of all essentials to every individual.

    Money is approaching the end of its social utility. We have a societal need to develop systems capable of sustaining us all in peace and abundance. It's not actually that difficult, there are many possible paradigms that are logically workable. The real trick is being able to think beyond the scarcity based mind-set of money. That is where most people get stuck.

    Robotics have the promise of abundance for all, and it is not a certainty, any number of suboptimal outcomes are possible.

    We have choice. Every one of us.
    Every choice is important.

    1 · April 21, 2014

    • Ted H.

      So yes, certainly many people currently are not in the habit of thinking for themselves and making their own decisions, they rely on others to do that for them, and in computer parlance, that is a software issue (manna already exists in a certain sense - we call it culture at one level, employment at another). It can be changed, and it takes time to recode human software, as the key software components are encoded in the hardware to some extent, and it takes a lot of repetition to reconfigure the hardware to run the new software consistently. Our hardware is very different from modern digital computers.

      April 21, 2014

    • Peter M.

      @Yissar - I don't think this will be a problem.

      May 5, 2014

  • Kiran M.

    "Increasingly, the most valuable things in our world involve people looking at you, touching you and understanding you."

    1 · May 4, 2014

  • Khannea S.


    April 28, 2014

    • Ted H.

      A possible way out, but still retains the inverted incentives of the market - so doesn't deliver long term stability as long as we allow market incentives to dominate.
      Might work if we clearly decide that we are going to have human values dominate - life, liberty. That requires dismantling the privacy around finance, and exposing the whole corrupt mess to public scrutiny. Then it might just work.

      2 · April 22, 2014

  • Khannea S.

    That's how I live. I live in the Netherlands and get money. If I work anything in addition I can keep all money I make - however there is absolutely no work for me here. Nobody will hire me. Volunteer organizations won't even have me as unpaid worker. I had my equivalent basic income since 2007. Ever since the quality of my life, my fear levels and my general productivity have gone up sharply. There's the period in my life before basic income, when I was basically a wreck, and the period after, where I have (arguably) become world famous in political and trans-humanist/techno-progressive activism. I recommend Basic Income to everyone. I recommend basic income to low paid workers as well as to high paid workers. I recommend it for the EU. I recommend it to big corporations and to governments and to unions. Without implementing it I think we are in some deep deep problems with human society. Ofc. the US will never implement it, and that's fine for me. But for the EU? Guaranteed.

    4 · April 21, 2014

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