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Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Eric Schmidt: How We Outrace the Robots

At the Deal Book conference today in Manhattan, I asked the executive chairman of Google, Eric Schmidt, where in the world the jobs for a great many people will be. His advice: We have to learn how to “outrace the robots.”

“Given the trends of globalization, automation and demographics, there will definitely be a small number of people who will be very prosperous,” said Mr. Schmidt. The challenge is to let as many people into that class as possible, and even more important, get masses of people educated to a level where they can qualify for work in the new businesses these people create.

Mr. Schmidt was speaking in an interview after appearing onstage at the New York Times DealBook conference. Earlier he, along with Mike Moritz, a partner in the Sequoia Capital venture capital firm, and Clara Shih, the founder of Hearsay Social, discussed how cloud comput ing's access to a nearly limitless amount of knowledge and a borderless consumer base would create great fortunes.

Throw in robotics, 3-D printing, and faster telecommunications, and things get tougher for the average worker. Robots may hollow out the factories in China, which count on cheap human labor, and bring manufacturing back to the United States. Those machines will need people to service them, and those people will need to be reasonably skilled.

Jobs like that are likely to be well worth having. But who says those robot operators have to be United States-based, just because the machines are? In a world like that, I asked Mr. Schmidt, what are the chances that the United States can expect to have unemployment of 6 percent or even lower?

“I don't think anyone can say the answer, but we can state the risks,” Mr. Schmidt said. “The way to combat it is education, which has to work for everyone, regardless of race or gender. You'll have global comp etition for all kinds of jobs.”

Understanding this, he said, should be America's “Sputnik moment,” which like that 1957 Russian satellite launch gives the nation a new urgency about education in math and science. “The president could say that in five years he wants the level of analytic education in this country â€" STEM education in science, technology, engineering and math, or economics and statistics â€" has to be at a level of the best Asian countries.”

Asian nations, Mr. Schmidt said, are probably going to proceed with their own increases in analytic education. “Employment is going to be a global problem, not a U.S. one,” he said.

Can we really outrun the robots, though? Mr. Schmidt cited the so-called “Flynn effect,” which notes that human intelligence appears to have risen on a sustained basis for several decades, possibly because people now live in more stimulating environments.< /p>

“The issue is, can you get the Flynn effect, plus education, to outrun the robots?” said Mr. Schmidt, who because of Google is a billionaire, and confessed his own self-interest in the matter.

“I am acutely aware that my economic and personal success depends on having a great number of customers and educated employees,” he said. It also matters that he has a stable world, without too many economic and political dislocations caused by our technology revolution.