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Humans need not apply: A world where technology replaces workers

First automated toll stations, now self-checkouts at supermarkets. Martin Ford ponders a world where machines have taken all the jobs, devastating the economy, and leaving people aching for something more. 

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"The Lights in the Tunnel" author Martin Ford describes a nightmare scenario where machines leave 75 percent of American workers unemployed by 2089.

Jeff Chiu/ AP Photo

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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 who did the vast majority of the spending.

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

So in 2009 he thought through what would happen to the economy if machines kept replacing human workers. The result was his book, "The Lights in the Tunnel."

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

Ford knows that 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."

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