Interview: Federico Pistono, Author of “Robots Will Steal Your Job But That’s OK”

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Photo taken by Sabrina Conforti

The author of “Robots will steal your job, but that’s OK,” is taking it to the next level. Back in January we spoke with the computer scientist/artist/social activist, Federico Pistono, about how automation is changing the economic landscape, making higher education increasingly essential to be competitive. His book, which is on pre-order right now and will be released this November, questions the premise that today's widespread unemployment is necessarily a symptom of the economic downturn and suggests it may be a sign that we're being pushed to an economic choke point by technology unprecedented throughout history. How do we know it will be at once a thought-provoking, inspiring and more than a bit unnerving book? Just take a look at the edited (and much shorter) version of our interview with Pistono.

On the verge of his book release, Pistono has traveled from his home in Verona, Italy to attend the Graduate Student Program at Singularity University. We spoke with him about his experience here so far, and how the SU environment is shaping the way he thinks about the future.

Why did you choose to attend SU?

I spent the past 6 years of my life trying to make a positive impact in the world. I started two non-profits, one cooperative, and a social movement. We organized conferences on sustainability, fought for human rights, collected signatures to push for policies that promoted transparency in government, freedom of speech, environmentally conscious decisions, public health, we helped shape new economic models and build technologies for energy production, recycling, water
harvesting, sustainable organic food production, and much more.

They were intense, fun, and socially rewarding years. But I realized that without substantial financial investments and strong connections, I could only have a so much of an impact. I thought Singularity University would allow me to take it to the next level, and tangibly help more than a billion people in 10 years or less. That is my goal.

How has the session (so far) supported or challenged your conclusions in "Robots..."?

I had long discussions with many of the students, teaching fellows, and speakers that came to visit. This really helped me a lot. It was a perfect testing ground to see if my thesis was fallacious, if there were things that I had not considered, or something that I misinterpreted. I took note of the conversations that we had and advice I received, which I integrate in the final draft of the book. The Graduate Study Program will end on August 26, so the release of "Robots will steal your job, but that's OK" on November 5 seems to go well with the timing.

Just yesterday, we had Andrew McAfee speaking, author of the book "Race Against the Machine", which I read back in October of last year. I agreed with his analysis, but I was very discontent with his proposed solutions, that lead me to write my own book on the subject, to try and give a different perspective. I had lunch with him and discussed in details some of the issues involved in part 3 of my book (solutions). We agreed on many things, but sometimes we seemed to be talking past each other, as if two different world have collided. It was very interesting.

How do you think SU can/will/should help bring some of the changes you mention in your book?

SU's mission is to help 1+ billion people in 10 years or less. Many seem to be very supportive of the Open Source, DIY innovators, hacker movements, and anything else that could help people live better lives. I think we have many goals in common, and by investing and promoting in activities that empowers groups of individuals to become more self-reliant, more resilient, and more cooperative, we can help humanity move forward in the right direction.

[image credits: Sabrina Conforti]
video: Federico Pistono

Peter Murray

Peter Murray was born in Boston in 1973. He earned a PhD in neuroscience at the University of Maryland, Baltimore studying gene expression in the neocortex. Following his dissertation work he spent three years as a post-doctoral fellow at the same university studying brain mechanisms of pain and motor control. He completed a collection of short stories in 2010 and has been writing for Singularity Hub since March 2011.

Discussion — 7 Responses

  • JadenVega August 14, 2012 on 9:52 am

    I recently watched a documentary called “Collapse”. It basically talks about our world economy coming to a halt due to us reaching peak oil. How do you think this will this affect automation? If this documentary is true and I’m inclined to think it is, from seeing the effects around me. There would have to be a replacement for this cheap source of power.

    • Senryu JadenVega August 14, 2012 on 2:05 pm

      We have several new technologies for example the e-cat that can replace easily fossil-source of energy… it require only more investiments, nothing more. Imho

    • Improbus JadenVega August 15, 2012 on 12:57 pm

      Complete and utter bull crap. We may be running out of oil but not energy. Energy is a political problem that will be sorted out one day. I assume the future will be electric but how we get there is unclear right now. It could be solar, nuclear (thorium LFTR reactors are my favorite), LENR, geo-thermal, bio-fuels or, most likely, a combination of the above.

      • JadenVega Improbus August 15, 2012 on 3:57 pm

        Oil is used for many other things like making the components for computers, plastics, paints, pesticides, tires even toothpaste. The global economy is based on fossil fuels. Even if we found a clean energy source that could replace it, what will we use to make computers for automation to steal our jobs. Nuclear energy: how many plants would we need, what are we using to make them? Solar panel farms: costly for the amount of energy you get back. We are using a combination now, oil being the top source. Not only do we need another source of energy that is cheap and abundant for the masses we still need to come up with other alternatives to make the things we do now. So I say automation might not come as quick as we think, this situation peak oil, might push us back further than we are now.

        • Scribe JadenVega December 13, 2012 on 1:46 am

          Decentralizing power will do much to drive down the costs of producing it, as well as minimizing how much people use.

          We can make plastics and other polymers from many things, from organic plant compounds to completely artificial carbon materials.

          We currently have much more power than we actually need to use, we waste much of it on frivolous and destructive actions that do little to better our situation as a species and planet.

          The robots will come and, when they do, they’ll take our jobs and make us chill the ef out.

    • Tracy R. Atkins JadenVega August 16, 2012 on 12:50 pm

      Any time you address the technological merits of a post singularity culture, you must also consider that post-scarcity could soon follow. Fossil fuels are but one source of energy and we are already stepping away from their use in real ways. Materials science and efficiency are the keys to getting away from fossil fuels all together. I don’t want to say that a new economy will emerge quickly, but the paradigm will likely shift in the next few decades and fossil fuels will be a very small part of life.

  • Vstoriguard August 18, 2012 on 9:04 pm

    Ye Gods! But I hope he’s right on the good effcts of automation.