Robots could push unemployment to 50% in 30 years, prof says

Technically Incorrect: A computational engineering professor paints a miserable picture of a leisured future.

Chris Matyszczyk
3 min read

Technically Incorrect offers a slightly twisted take on the tech that's taken over our lives.


They may put us out of work even sooner than we think.

Sarah Tew/CNET

This is the weekend to fully appreciate love.

Not just love for your lover, but love for the basics of what you call life.

In the near future, you see, the situation will be very different. You might soon be part human-part robot, at least that's what Google director of engineering Ray Kurzweil contends.

You may also have nothing to do but laze around (if you can afford it), play golf (if you can afford it) and eat (if you can afford it).

This is the picture lovingly painted by Professor Moshe Vardi in a speech Sunday to the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Washington DC.

Vardi is a professor of computational engineering at Rice University. The school released some details of his speech in advance, and they offer a future that is nothing but a bunch of thorns.

Vardi questions the oft-quoted notion that technological advancements always benefit humanity in the end.

"A typical answer is that if machines will do all our work, we will be free to pursue leisure activities," he says.

This doesn't quite do it for Vardi.

"I do not find this a promising future," he says, "as I do not find the prospect of leisure-only life appealing. I believe that work is essential to human well-being."

In 30 years, Vardi says, computers will be able to perform almost any job that humans can. One assumes this includes working as a professor of computational engineering. Vardi foresees unemployment as surpassing 50 percent by 2045.

A question that follows may be: What might be done to stop it? Perhaps President Trump will ban artificial intelligence research.

"I do not believe that technology can be stopped. The genie is out of the bottle," Vardi told me. "What we need to do is to start now thinking very hard and investing in research into how society can cope with the advance of automation."

The timeline is tight.

"If we wait 25 years, we may find ourselves in a very difficult societal change. The Industrial Revolution brought about the Russian Revolution and the Chinese Revolution, with a human cost of about 100 million lives. I hope we are wiser this time," he told me.

Vardi isn't the first to worry that artificial intelligence will not benefit the common good. Physicist Stephen Hawking has worried that AI "could be the worst thing ever for humanity."

Too many large brains, though, seem hell-bent of pressing toward a machine-dominated world, as if this were automatically a wonderful goal.

Google, Facebook and so many other tech companies have committed themselves to artificial intelligence "progress" that seems unbound by anything other than current technical possibility. It's hard to see their vision as anything other than clever people dabbling with little understanding of the consequences.

Humans seem like mere guinea pigs for their research. It's like youths tossing Mentos candies into Coke bottles just to see what happens.

Tech companies insist that they're all "making the world a better place," but they may merely be using the world as a lab for their experiments.

Ask me in 2045, when I hope to be playing golf somewhere in Portugal, while my robot caddy carries my clubs, pours my drinks and hugs me all night.