Al Gore: Coming Tech Revolution Could Take More Jobs Than It Makes

Xconomy Boston — 

Al Gore may just be on the side of the Luddites.

Yes, that’s the radical faction of British textile workers at the onset of the Industrial Revolution who broke into factories to smash the new machines that they feared would someday put them out of work.

But no, Gore is not yet raging against the machines.

At least he didn’t on Wednesday, as he stood on a stage at Desktop Metal’s headquarters in Burlington, MA, backed by a whirring fleet of the startup’s metal 3D printers—heralds of the so-called Fourth Industrial Revolution.

Instead, what the former U.S. vice president and current senior partner at Kleiner Perkins, a Desktop Metal investor, was challenging was the worn assumption that technology does not steal more jobs than it creates—what in economist-lingo is known as the Luddite Fallacy. The theory, based on the Luddites’ fear of technology, goes on to claim that new technology changes the makeup of jobs in the economy, but doesn’t reduce the overall demand for workers.

(To see how engrained this economic principle is, ask an entrepreneur how many people their technology is going to put out of work. The response I’ve heard again and again is some riff on: The technology doesn’t put people out of work, it lets them do more work or different work.)

Gore is not convinced the economic maxim will hold up as 3D printing, machine learning, and artificial intelligence take over larger parts of the economy.

“Whether that still holds true in an age where we are now technologically extending not only physicality but also thought processes—the early evidence over the last five years indicate that the Luddite Fallacy may no longer be true,” Gore said. “What kind of political changes will have to emerge? Your discussion of a guaranteed income? I don’t know how I feel about that, but I do think that the divide between private and public is likely to shift a bit.”

There’s no shortage of work in many parts of the economy that have traditionally been privately run, from healthcare and childcare to environmental cleanup, he added, but many of those industries have seen “chronic underinvestment” and will need some perhaps public incentive to absorb a broad influx of new workers.

“If we do indeed see a large-scale hollowing out of employment in multiple verticals simultaneously then instead of a government guaranteed income, there may instead be a set of new policies to compensate people for doing all the work that desperately needs to be done now, but with new sources of revenue for compensating that work,” he said.

Gore’s talk, which predicted a coming “sustainability revolution” and called for reforms to capitalism, marked the startup’s first annual gathering of customers and investors. Desktop Metal’s prototyping model 3D printer started shipping in December 2017, and its high-output production model unit is expected to start shipping by the end of this month, the company said in January. The production model has been waylaid by delays. In July 2017, Desktop Metal predicted it would hit markets sometime in 2018.

In January, the company also announced it had closed a $160 million funding round led by the innovation arm of the multinational industrial conglomerate Koch Industries, Koch Disruptive Technologies. The haul put Desktop Metal’s total funding at $438 million since its 2015 launch.

In addition to Koch and Kleiner Perkins, Desktop Metal’s investors include New Enterprise Associates, Alphabet’s GV (formerly Google Ventures), GE Ventures, Future Fund, Techtronic Industries, Lowe’s, Lux Capital, Vertex Ventures, Moonrise Venture Partners, Panasonic, DCVC Opportunity, Tyche Partners, Shenzhen Capital Group, Saudi Aramco, Ford Motor Company, BMW i Ventures, and Stratasys.

Desktop Metal CEO Ric Fulop (pictured above on stage with Gore) said the success of 3D printing will drive a fourth, digital, mode of supply chain in addition to land, sea, and air.

“We have one customer, Caterpillar (NYSE: CAT), who has a vision of putting these in each one of their dealers around the world so they can print spare parts on demand,” he said. “Imagine a world where parts are digital, and the factory that makes jet engines can also make gas turbines and can also make MRI components because they are all printed on the same machine.”

Gore said technology like Desktop Metal’s as well as A.I., machine learning, and the Internet of Things will drive a “sustainability revolution.”

The tools, he said, are “giving executive teams the ability to manipulate protons and electrons and atoms and molecules—and genes for that matter—with the same precision that the I.T. companies have demonstrated in managing bits of information.”