Tech in an Age of Insecurity


  • The Tech in an Age of Insecurity panel at Techonomy NYC. From left, moderator David Kirkpatrick, The Financial Times's Gillian Tett, Fred Krupp of the Environmental Defense Fund, and Rodney Brooks from Rethink Robotics


Rodney Brooks
Founder, Chairman and CTO, Rethink Robotics

Fred Krupp
President, Environmental Defense Fund

Gillian Tett
U.S. Managing Editor, The Financial Times


David Kirkpatrick
Founder and CEO, Techonomy

Session Description: Could our technologized, hyper-democratized life actually be getting worse? Can tech get us out of this mess? How can tech help society tackle its challenges?

Below is an excerpt of the Tech in an Age of Insecurity panel. The full transcript can be accessed here.

David Kirkpatrick: Let’s bring the next panel right up here. Okay, so here we have Gillian Tett, who’s the U.S. North America editor of the FT, and probably one of the smartest people I know, and has a very interesting breadth of understanding and perspective on a lot of things that we just discussed with Fred. We have another Fred, Fred Krupp of the Environmental Defense Fund, who’s somebody I wrote about first 25 years ago or some ungodly thing like that. He’s been doing this great work on the environment all that time and has a very interesting perspective on technology as a tool in this climate change and environmental crisis that we confront. That’s one of the reasons I wanted to have him here. And then, our designated technologist Rodney Brooks. I think you said last night at the dinner that you’ve been doing AI for 45 years. Is that really possible?

Rodney Brooks: Yes.

Kirkpatrick: Okay. That’s a long time. He invented the Roomba with I-Robot, the vacuum cleaner. He now has Baxter, the computer that works on assembly lines as a robot. I think he can talk very knowledgeably about what’s actually possible in technology right now. I don’t know, maybe I’ll start with you, Rodney. Were you here for Fred’s—?

Brooks: Yes.

Kirkpatrick: Do you share his optimism?

Brooks: I’m optimistic in general but I think we’re not going to have enough people to fill the jobs that will be needed.

Kirkpatrick: Interesting. Why?

Brooks: Because of the demographic inversion. Because there are going to be so many older people, less working age people. In Japan, the ratio is going from nine to one working age to elderly, to two to one. Fred mentioned nurses, but I don’t think there’s going to be enough people to provide support for the elderly. Baby boomers are about to start retiring. We’re going to want to stay in our homes, we’re going to want to maintain independence and dignity and we’re just not going to have enough helpers as we get older.

Kirkpatrick: There are a surprising number of technologists, including Fred’s partner, Albert Wenger, who say that they’re worried that because technology is going to create so much economic growth, they’re worried about the jobs that will be available and unfilled. You don’t agree with that, am I right?

Gillian Tett: No. I mean, what I find fascinating about Japan, speaking as someone who’s spent years of my life in Japan—I was actually there just last weekend. The Financial Times these days is actually owned by a Japanese company. A few years ago, I had a panel a bit like this, with Paul Volker from the Fed. We were talking about why the Japanese economy has so massively underperformed in recent years in terms of growth. Paul made the point that if you look at Japan in terms of GDP per capita, not overall, actually growth has been fine, because the economy has been flat, or shrinking, because of demographics. He posed the question, which is very relevant to today, which is: Could we think of any examples in history of an economy whose population had shrunk but had continued to grow? The only one anyone could think of apparently was post-famine Ireland. It was a very interesting question, because traditionally, demographics and growth have been intricately entwined.

Now, what is fascinating today is that we may actually be at a breakpoint for the first time in history, because the power of robotics and digitization means that potentially economies can grow and become more productive, without necessarily needing to have lots more workers. In Japan last weekend, the great discussion right now is that they’re running out of workers to do many ordinary jobs but Japan is embracing robotics with an enthusiasm that is unimaginable in America. In Japan, no one is saying, “Are robots going to take our jobs? Help! Let’s all run for the exits. Let’s all vote in Donald Trump.” In Japan, they’re saying, “Great! Thank God robots are there. We may actually get out of the demographic problem as a result.” That may be specific to Japan, but the other thought I’d leave you with is that right now the demographic pyramid in China is actually much, much, much worse than Japan.

Kirkpatrick: So that would mean that China will probably lead the world in robotics and automation?

Tett: You don’t see that today. But, in 10 to 20 years, because of the one-child policy, the demographics in China are beyond terrible. They’re much worse than anything seen in Japan. China has an enormous problem coming down the tracks, because of this incredibly unbalanced demographic pattern right now. Maybe we need to change the conversation about robotics beyond the current one, which is very Western-centric and very European-centric too.

Kirkpatrick: But, what do you think is going to happen in the UK, the US, Western Europe? The demographics aren’t so great in Western Europe either but here they are. Do you worry about the jobs issue? Do you disagree with Rodney when it comes to the United States?

Tett: No. I worry enormously in the short to medium term, because the reality is that you’re going to see a lot of jobs disappearing, you are going to see massive skill mismatch. I think that Fred’s optimism in the previous panel was fabulous, I also think the comments challenging him were fabulous, too. If you’re sitting here in New York right now, having nice granola breakfast on a sunny day, yes the world looks great. Believe me, I’ve spent quite a lot of time out in the heartlands recently and the world does not look great there at all because actually people are not jumping on board the tech train.

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