Will Robots Lead to Widespread Joblessness and Economic Inequality?

Martin Ford and Antony Sammeroff debate the future of robotics and its potential economic impacts at the Soho Forum.


Robotics will soon lead to widespread joblessness and the concentration of wealth in the hands of a few.

That was the resolution of a public debate hosted by the Soho Forum in New York City on January 6, 2020. It featured New York Times bestselling author Martin Ford, arguing the affirmative, versus Antony Sammeroff, spokesperson on economics and environment for the Scottish Libertarian Party. Soho Forum Director Gene Epstein moderated.

It was an Oxford-style debate, in which the audience votes on the resolution at the beginning and end of the event, with many "undecided." The side that gains the most ground is victorious. Sammeroff prevailed in the debate by convincing 19.64 percent of audience members to come over to his side. Ford picked up 2.68 percent. 

Ford is the author of Rise of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of a Jobless Future, Architects of Intelligence: the Truth about AI from the People Building It, and The Lights in the Tunnel: Automation, Accelerating Technology, and the Economy of the Future.

Sammeroff, who argued for the negative, is the author of Universal Basic Income: For and Against and co-host of the Scottish Liberty Podcast.

The Soho Forum, which is sponsored by the Reason Foundation, is a monthly debate series at the SubCulture Theater in Manhattan's East Village.

Produced by John Osterhoudt.

Photo: Right robot, Photo 144080417 © Boris Medvedev—

Photo: Left robot, Photo 141519784 © Kittipong Jirasukhanont—

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  1. As long as they rise up and kill the statists, I’ll take that as a fair trade-off.

    1. Violence is not the answer.

      1. That depends on the question.

    2. If the robots “rise up and kill” anyone, it’s going to be a class-war, not an ideological war.

  2. Simple: start a government program that gives everyone a robot, and the robot can go get a job.


  3. it’ll be our job to build and maintain the robots until they can do that too

  4. Will it lead to HyR automatically rerunning articles?

  5. Only robots should be allowed to talk about this. Ownvoices.

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  8. I found it interesting that Martin Ford supported a Universal Basic Income (UBI) to address joblessness from automation and Antony Sammeroff opposed this suggestion. Mr. Sammeroff paints the picture of a Star Trek like future were 3D printers meet all our needs and wants. What Mr. Sammeroff fails to note is that UBI seems to be a principle of the Star Trek future where people are free to do what they want and work only to the degree they wish to work.

    1. UBI is bullshit, compared to Friedman’s Negative Income Tax. Libertarians shit on Friedman’s sound plan (including Reason, twice that I know of) … presumably because Friedman DEMOLISHED the Gold Standard (and Miseans and Paulists) with one simple question “Do we want stable prices or a stable money supply.” It’s impossible to have both, because of the Law of Supply and Demand. That’s why gold FAILED maintain stable prices … with over a century of DEflation (except for monetary expansion for two wars — 1812 and Civil. As the Industrial Revolution gained steam, the Supply of gold could not match the exploding Demand for gold, and adding silver didn’t solve the Supply shortage.

      Friedman’s NIT starts by converting all current “safety net” programs into cash. Starts by eliminating 90% of the bureaucracy, at all levels of government. “Negative Income Tax” because the cash support will be
      reduced by the “tax” as the persons work their way up, out of poverty,

      (Imagine $17,000 of cash benefits, with a 10% “negative income tax” on earned income.)

      The reason, and this is also suppressed, is that the biggest obstacle to leaving poverty is … conflicts between multiple programs. Each program reduces benefits at a different pace, as earned income increases, PLUS some have a 100% cut at a fixed dollar level. In other words, hypothetical, you’re in poverty, getting benefits and one or two disappear entirely with $1 of more income. $1 income costs you $450 reduced benefits. What would YOU do?) We LITERALLY punish people for “moving on up!”

      And how the FUCK can these recipients calculate all these different benefit reductions, from seeking a better job? If “marginal tax rates” are a disincentive to the middle class, how does HIGHER marginal tax rates affect the ultra-poor.

      No surprise here, that the Libertarian fucked up the worst in this debate. All too common since the anti-gummint mentality replaced pro-liberty incentives as our dominant focus, roughly a quarter-century ago..

  9. The moment that Martin Ford started bringing in other Socialist, Progressive subject matters, such as Universal Income, as a way to supplement what hasn’t YET happened since it was predicted in 1964, it’s the moment I knew that he had already lost the argument. The same scare/fear-mongering techniques are being used/have been used with End-of-the-World scenarios and Man Made Global Warming. The new one? The World’s “gonna end” in 12 years.

    Kids nowadays are not being taught in School the History of the Soviet Union, including Stalin & Lenin, China’s Cultural Revolution, Pot Pot’s murderous regime, etc. It seems that we are on a path to duplicating History’s mistakes because the educational agenda’s on Public Schools today want it so. Otherwise you would not be hearing these totally & utterly non-sensical “Green Deal” Plans, Plans to censor free speech & plans to curtail, add regulation to, remove the rights to bear arms.

    1. That’s a good summary of the craziest right-wing delusions … and, of course, the psychopathic lie that democratic socialism equates to Stalin and Lenin, Pol Pot., China’s Cultural Revolution.

      None of that is as crazy as believing Trump is NOT a lying sack of shit, on who initiated the assaults and murder in Charlottesville.

      Just and gullible and manipulated as Bernie’s and Elizabeth’s bots.
      Because: Right – Left = Zero.

      1. Here are the FUCKING Delusions:

        1989 UN Headline:
        ” A senior U.N. environmental official says entire nations could be wiped off the face of the Earth by rising sea levels if the global warming trend is not reversed by the year 2000.”
        And I am supposed to believe that the World is going to end in 12 years? GREEN DEAL? FUCK OFF! LOL!

        Here is the ‘Socialist’ Disaster that once was Socialist Sweden and how it pulled itself out of its own Sphincter to correct itself…..

        FInally, and this is the GRANDEST FUCKED UP Democratic Socialist PIPE Dreams in the USA, Medicare and Social Security:
        ” The present value of these deficits or unfunded obligations is an estimated $45.8 trillion. This is the amount that would have had to be set aside in 2009 in order to pay for the unfunded obligations which, under current law, will have to be raised by the government in the future. Approximately $7.7 trillion relates to Social Security, while $38.2 trillion relates to Medicare and Medicaid. In other words, health care programs will require nearly five times more funding than Social Security.”

        Cause numbers do not lie, PEOPLE DO!

        Finally, Teens on the street don’t know any of the Histories above. Teens need to learn what an extreme could be within Socialism, just like Imperialism is another type of extreme, and the dozens of millions of deaths any of the extremes can cause.
        Because YOUR DEFINITION of Democratic Socialism could be different from the next guy and much bigger than the other guy. Some Communist may call himself a ‘Democratic Socialist’ for all we know.

        I was born in, raised in and ABANDONED Puerto Rico, a FUCKED UP Democratic Socialist experiment were the biggest incentive is to be unemployed and see how much Local and Federal assistance you can get. Where 1 out of every 3 working people, work for the local government….You think this is a wonderful thing? To create a system of LAZY ASS MOTHERFUCKERS?
        Universal Income? What a FUCKED UP JOKE!

        1. FAIL to rebut a single one of your crazy delusions, and added MORE psycho lies.

          YES, yes, the progressive left is crazy as your authoritarian right! (yawn)

          What the FUCK do you “think” it means, when he SAYS “Left – Right = Zero?” He SAYS they’re as crazed as you, so you “think” he’s a lefty???

          With STOOPID shit, like this:

          You think this is a wonderful thing?

          Dumber than a box of rocks.
          Most likely a Trumptard.

          Universal Income? What a FUCKED UP JOKE!

          That’s what HE (or she said, immediately above your mental breakdown! But far more intelligently. When YOU fuck up, you do it world-class!

          NOTHING funnier than a illiterate goober, trying to teach economics to libertarians, by spewing memorized slogans that they don’t actually understand.

          (Apologies if you’re doing satire of a crazed right-winger)

        2. P.S. He also said … “Just and gullible and manipulated as Bernie’s and Elizabeth’s bots.”

          That would be Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren.
          They’re both on the far left, which you obviously didn’t know when you launched your shitstorm. Sad.

          (Puerto Rico’s unemployment rate is further evidence of your ….)

  10. Thanks for conducting this experiment and sharing your results with us! This is indeed informative!

  11. No: robots cannot replace us! Automation is apparently an inexhaustible source of fear-mongering. According to many articles and comments, robots will "replace us”; and cause enormous unemployment. However, this dystopian vision of the future has a few fundamental flaws. As usual, it is based on a lack of economic knowledge. The market economy is not seen as an economic organism, but through the eyes of an engineer. It is an economic consideration of people who have a fundamentally wrong understanding of economics: They believe that it is about technology and engineering – maximising production output, not economising on the means to achieve goals of high personal value. If we view the economy as a cycle, we can increase its effectiveness by reducing errors, or "transaction costs”;, and thus ensure that "the wheels turn faster and faster”;. An efficient economy is only a matter of technology, which is why the state has an obvious role to play: it creates carefully planned institutions and regulations that solve many (if not all) problems that arise when people do not make perfect decisions. It is also possible to improve the market-based production process of decentralised decision-making by introducing rational central planning, thus making rational use of all available information. The task now is to make sure that the right people are in power, who then come up with the best methods to achieve previously known goals.
    In other words: We don’t need to know anything about economics per se, we are faced with a pure engineering problem – to eliminate inefficiency and improve existing processes. So it is only logical to replace humans by robots, who do not need holidays, have no free will, and do not consider leisure time as a value. If these robots could also repair themselves, and even make new robots, we would certainly not need any more workers. However, there is a total misunderstanding here of what economics actually is. The view just described regards the economy primarily as the production of goods. Empirically, this is not wrong: our everyday economic activities really consist of making the right things in the right way. However, this is not what the economy is really about; and this is not understood by most of those who comment on the "danger of automation”;. Robots and artificial intelligence can certainly help to solve many of the production problems that still occupy us today. And robots do indeed usually work more efficiently than humans, which has been known at least since Adam Smith’s magnum opus. That is why we have been developing and using machines for quite some time. The same applies to robots, automation and AI. But we are not dealing with a threat here – quite simply because the economy is not about solving the problem of production efficiency. In fact, it is about using scarce resources to meet needs. Both means and objectives are subject to subjective evaluation. Robots do not rate.
    So robots can be more efficient workers, and possibly better engineers – but they can’t figure out what’s being valued highly. This is the job of entrepreneurs who bet on what consumers want in the future. Even if the entire production is done by robots, these robots cannot figure out what to produce based on the value judgements. It is quite possible that robots and AI may one day be able to figure out how best to provide calories, oxygen and other objective necessities for human life. But the step from "2000 calories a day”; to "food that people will be happy to buy”; is not taken by optimizing an algorithm, but by understanding people and their value judgements. More precisely, it is even about speculating on what people will value highly in the future. No robot or non-human is capable of this. In the same way, it takes a large number of imaginative, human entrepreneurs – intellectual division of labour – to find out together in the market how to create value. The economy is about economization, and economization is not about physical resources or means of production. Tools and raw materials are undoubtedly necessary for production, but their use in the economy can only be expressed in terms of value – and these resources are (and must be) economized in this sense. This fundamental economic fact is regularly ignored when considering automation or AI.

  12. That’s a good summary of the craziest right-wing delusions … and, of course, the psychopathic lie that democratic socialism equates to Stalin and Lenin, Pol Pot., China’s Cultural Revolution.

    None of that is as crazy as believing Trump is NOT a lying sack of shit, on who initiated the assaults and murder in Charlottesville.

    Just and gullible and manipulated as Bernie’s and Elizabeth’s bots.
    Because: Right – Left = Zero.

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