A future when machines have all the jobs?

Author Martin Ford, 49, in his book The Lights in the Tunnel, describes a world where machines leave 75 percent of American workers unemployed. Consumer spending collapses, and government debt explodes as tax revenue falls. Enlarge photo

Jeff Chiu/Associated Press

Author Martin Ford, 49, in his book The Lights in the Tunnel, describes a world where machines leave 75 percent of American workers unemployed. Consumer spending collapses, and government debt explodes as tax revenue falls.

WASHINGTON – Martin Ford saw it everywhere, even in his own business.

Smarter machines and better software were helping companies do more work with fewer people. His Silicon Valley software firm used to put its programs on disks and ship them to customers. The disks were made, packaged and delivered by human beings. Now Ford’s customers can just download the software to their computers – no disks, no packaging, no delivery workers.

“It is getting easier and easier to avoid hiring people by taking advantage of technology,” Ford says.

An ordinary entrepreneur might simply have welcomed the cost savings. But something nagged at Ford: He wondered how a consumer economy – and 70 percent of the U.S. economy consists of consumer spending – could function if machines kept dislodging the workers.

“At some point you simply will have too few viable consumers to power a healthy economy,” he says.

So, in 2009, he thought through the implications if machines kept replacing human workers.

In his book, Ford, 49, describes a nightmare scenario. Machines leave 75 percent of American workers unemployed by 2089. Consumer spending collapses. Even those still working slash spending, and they fear their jobs are doomed, too. As people lose work, they stop contributing to Social Security, bankrupting the system.

Ford knows his apocalyptic vision defies history. For two centuries, technological advances – from steam power to the combustion engine – have delivered more economic growth, more wealth, more and better jobs. “The historical argument is compelling,” he says. “It’s been going on for 200 years.”

Machines can do more and more human work. They don’t just replace human brawn the way older machines did; increasingly, they substitute machine power for human brainpower.

And their powers will only grow. “Information technology continues to advance exponentially,” Ford said. “So the future impact is potentially going to be much greater than anything we have seen thus far.”

The military is waging war with drones, deploying robots to sniff out bombs. “If you can build machines that operate autonomously on the battlefield, you can build machines that operate autonomously in a warehouse,” he said.

Don’t fight technology, Ford said. Smarter machines will make life better and increase wealth in the economy.

The challenge, he says, is to make sure the benefits are shared when most workers have been supplanted by machines.