Bits of Books - Books by Title
Rise of the Robots:
Technology and the Threat of a Jobless Future
- if it's repetitive and routine, it will be done by a machine.
- computers and Internet irretrievably integrated into our lives.
The impact of change often compared to electricity. But that was overwhelmingly positive. Transformed lives, for the better, of everyone who accessed it. Computers a lot more nuanced - more like the invention of the automobile.
On one hand, each of us is now carrying around a portable device of literally unparalleled functionality - a phone, a camera, an encyclopedia, an advisor, a bank, a link to a faraway market - but on the other hand, there is no clear picture of how to turn that functionality into an income. Yes, there are the oft-repeated success stories, such as the sardine fishers of Kerala, but they are very isolated examples. For many, the only useful bit of smartphone will be playing Angry Birds while you're standing in the dole queue.
In terms of general intelligence, computers barely better than an insect. But insects don't land passenger jets, book dinner reservations, or trade on Wall Street.
"Goldilocks period": originally applied to time when English settlers first arrived in Australia. As they crossed the Blue Mts, they found lushly planted fields spread out across the plains. They assumed this was normal, and started setting up farms. But it turned out that this was a highly atypical period of reliable rainfall (a "pluvial"). The norm was drought.
Similar time periods for other activities - music industry from 60's to the 90's. Baby boomers access to university and well-paid jobs that supported families with one bread-winner.
In the early C21, profits all to owners and bosses, none to the employees.
The threatened jobs are the ones with predictable tasks. If someone could learn your job by repeating your past actions, then so can an algorithm.
Radiologists need long training - 13 years post-school. Yet computers are getting better at interpreting images, and obvious that this job will be taken by robots.
Vending machines have become very sophisticated. They make it possible to dramatically reduce three of the most significant costs in retail - real estate, labour and employee theft.
Agriculture replacing the last unskilled workers. Harvesting robots selecting ripe strawberries working 24/7. Oranges picked by first 3D mapping the tree to locate every orange, then an 8-limbed octopus robot picks each one. Robots intensively monitoring every plant or tree in a field, injecting optimum water and/or fertiliser as required, and applying pesticides to individual fruits, rather than trying to blanket the whole tree or field.
Agriculture in developing countries notoriously inefficient. Tiny plots of land, supporting more people than are needed to cultivate it. The land degrades, and will need modern techniques to rehabilitate it. This will entail rationalisation (to be able to afford the machinery and inputs), and many farmers will be pushed off the land, at a time when jobs in city factories are also being replaced by robots.
Writing would seem a skill that requires humans - think of it as more art than science. Yet programs such as Narrative Science will produce sports or news stories from basic data.
Google translate, Google self-drive cars, are both examples of modern machine learning. First you pull together a huge body of data - in the translation engine the data came first from UN documents which get translated into multiple languages, and second from all the translated documents on the web. Then apply self-learning mechanisms to educate the program by feedback whenever get something wrong.
Implications of the Bell Curve: The combined population of India and China is 2.6 billion. The top 5%, in cognitive terms, is 130 million. China and India are producing at least twice as many smart, educated people as they can employ domestically. At the moment, they are constrained by lack of fluency in English. But in a few years this will not be an issue as Google and others perfect real time language translation. These people will be competing for jobs everywhere in the world.
WorkFusion offers to manage projects that are highly labour-intensive through a combination of crowd-sourcing and automation. Software analyses a project to decide which tasks can be automated, which can be crowd sourced, and which need to be done by in-house professionals. Jobs are advertised on sites like Craigslist or TaskRabbit. Freelancers are graded by being given small tasks for which the program already knows the solutions and optimum paths. It tracks productivity using metrics like typing speed and matches tasks to capability of the workers. If one can't do it, the job is escalated to next level of employee.
But the really interesting part is how the program is learning from the people who complete tasks, looking for bits that can be further automated. So, even as they are working under the machine's direction, they are also generating the training data that will gradually lead to their replacement with full automation.
About 20% of American college grads are over-educated for their current position. Worse in free-ed Europe where 30%, and China where figure is 47%. But it's not just that Americans are choosing easy, non job-friendly courses - up to a third of those who get science, engineering or tech degrees don't find relevant jobs.
It is now becoming apparent that robots are going to intrude on all the skills areas that were once thought 'safe'. So the conventional solution of more education to move everybody up the ladder is just not going to work.
Suggestion of a universal guaranteed income. It took the US decades to pass Affordable Care Act, and universal health care is something that virtually every Western nation enjoys. Nobody has a guaranteed income scheme on a big scale, so whoever goes first will be making it up as they go along.
In the United States and other advanced economies, the major disruption will be in the service sector - which is, after all, where the vast majority of workers are now employed. This trend is already evident in areas like ATMs and self-service checkout lanes, but the next decade is likely to see an explosion of new forms of service sector automation, potentially putting millions of relatively low-wage jobs at risk.
San Francisco start-up company Momentum Machines Inc., has set out to fully automate the production of gourmet-quality hamburgers. Whereas a fast food worker might toss a frozen patty onto the grill, Momentum Machines' device shapes burgers from freshly ground meat and then grills them to order - including even the ability to add just the right amount of char while retaining all the juices. The machine, which is capable of producing about 360 hamburgers per hour, also toasts the bun and then slices and adds fresh ingredients like tomatoes, onions, and pickles only after the order is placed. Burgers arrive assembled and ready to serve on a conveyer belt. While most robotics companies take great care to spin a positive tale when it comes to the potential impact on employment, Momentum Machines co-founder Alexandros Vardakostas is very forthright about the company's objective: 'Our device isn't meant to make employees more efficient,' he said. 'It's meant to completely obviate them.'
The company estimates that the average fast food restaurant spends about $135,000 per year on wages for employees who produce hamburgers and that the total labor cost for burger production for the US economy is about $9 billion annually. Momentum Machines believes its device will pay for itself in less than a year, and it plans to target not just restaurants but also convenience stores, food trucks, and perhaps even vending machines. The company argues that eliminating labor costs and reducing the amount of space required in kitchens will allow restaurants to spend more on high-quality ingredients, enabling them to offer gourmet hamburgers at fast food prices.
Those burgers might sound very inviting, but they would come at a considerable cost. Millions of people hold low-wage, often part-time, jobs in the fast food and beverage industries. McDonald's alone employs about 1.8 million workers in 34,000 restaurants worldwide. Historically, low wages, few benefits, and a high turnover rate have helped to make fast food jobs relatively easy to find, and fast food jobs, together with other low-skill positions in retail, have provided a kind of private sector safety net for workers with few other options: these jobs have traditionally offered an income of last resort when no better alternatives are available. In December 2013, the US Bureau of Labor Statistics ranked combined food preparation and serving workers, a category that excludes waiters and waitresses in full-service restaurants, as one of the top employment sectors in terms of the number of job openings projected over the course of the decade leading up to 2022 - with nearly half a million new jobs and another million openings to replace workers who leave the industry.
In the wake of the Great Recession, however, the rules that used to apply to fast food employment are changing rapidly. In 2011, McDonald's launched a high-profile initiative to hire 50,000 new workers in a single day and received over a million applications - a ratio that made landing a McJob more of a statistical long shot than getting accepted at Harvard. While fast food employment was once dominated by young people looking for a part-time income while in school, the industry now employs far more mature workers who rely on the jobs as their primary income. Nearly 90 percent of fast food workers are twenty or older, and the average age is thirty-five. Many of these older workers have to support families - a nearly impossible task at a median wage of just $8.69 per hour.
The industry's low wages and nearly complete lack of benefits have drawn intense criticism. In October 2013, McDonald's was lambasted after an employee who called the company's financial help line was advised to apply for food stamps and Medicaid. Indeed, an analysis by the Labor Center at the University of California, Berkeley, found that more than half of the families of fast food workers are enrolled in some type of public assistance program and that the resulting cost to US taxpayers is nearly $7 billion per year.
When a spate of protests and ad hoc strikes at fast food restaurants broke out in New York and then spread to more than fifty US cities in the fall of 2013, the Employment Policies Institute, a conservative think tank with close ties to the restaurant and hotel industries, placed a full-page ad in the Wall Street Journal warning that 'Robots Could Soon Replace Fast Food Workers Demanding a Higher Minimum Wage.' While the ad was doubtless intended as a scare tactic, the reality is that - as the Momentum Machines device demonstrates - increased automation in the fast food industry is almost certainly inevitable. Given that companies like Foxconn are introducing robots to perform high-precision electronic assembly in China, there is little reason to believe that machines won't also eventually be serving up burgers, tacos, and lattes across the fast food industry.
Japan's Kura sushi restaurant chain has already successfully pioneered an automation strategy. In the chain's 262 restaurants, robots help make the sushi while conveyor belts replace waiters. To ensure freshness, the system keeps track of how long individual sushi plates have been circulating and automatically removes those that reach their expiration time. Customers order using touch panel screens, and when they are finished dining they place the empty dishes in a slot near their table. The system automatically tabulates the bill and then cleans the plates and whisks them back to the kitchen. Rather than employing store managers at each location, Kura uses centralized facilities where managers are able to remotely monitor nearly every aspect of restaurant operations. Kura's automation-based business model allows it to price sushi plates at just 100 yen (about $1), significantly undercutting its competitors.
It's fairly easy to envision many of the strategies that have worked for Kura, especially automated food production and offsite management, eventually being adopted across the fast food industry. Some significant steps have already been taken in that direction; McDonalds, for example, announced in 2011 that it would install touch screen ordering systems at 7,000 of its European restaurants. Once one of the industry's major players begins to gain significant advantages from increased automation, the others will have little choice but to follow suit. Automation will also offer the ability to compete on dimensions beyond lower labor costs. Robotic production might be viewed as more hygienic since fewer workers would come into contact with the food. Convenience, speed, and order accuracy would increase, as would the ability to customize orders. Once a customer's preferences were recorded at one restaurant, automation would make it a simple matter to consistently produce the same results at other locations.
Given all this, I think it is quite easy to imagine that a typical fast food restaurant may eventually be able to cut its workforce by 50 percent, or perhaps even more. At least in the United States, the fast food market is already so saturated that it seems very unlikely that new restaurants could make up for such a dramatic reduction in the number of workers required at each location. And this, of course, would mean that a great many of the job openings forecast by the Bureau of Labor Statistics might never materialize.
The other major concentration of low-wage service jobs is in the general retail sector. Economists at the Bureau of Labor Statistics rank 'retail salesperson' second only to 'registered nurse' as the specific occupation that will add the most jobs in the decade ending in 2020 and expect over 700,000 new jobs to be created. Once again, however, technology has the potential to make the government projections seem optimistic. We can probably anticipate that three major forces will shape employment in the retail sector going forward.
The first will be the continuing disruption of the industry by online retailers like Amazon, eBay, and Netflix. The competitive advantage that online suppliers have over brick and mortar stores is already, of course, evident with the demise of major retail chains like Circuit City, Borders, and Blockbuster. Both Amazon and eBay are experimenting with same-day delivery in a number of US cities, with the objective of undermining one of the last major advantages that local retail stores still enjoy: the ability to provide immediate gratification after a purchase.
In theory, the encroachment of online retailers should not necessarily destroy jobs but, rather, would transition them from traditional retail settings to the warehouses and distribution centers used by the online companies. However, the reality is that once jobs move to a warehouse they become far easier to automate. Amazon purchased Kiva Systems, a warehouse robotics company in 2012. Kiva's robots, which look a bit like huge, roving hockey pucks, are designed to move materials within warehouses. Rather than having workers roam the aisles selecting items, a Kiva robot simply zips under an entire pallet or shelving unit, lifts it, and then brings it directly to the worker packing an order. The robots navigate autonomously using a grid laid out by barcodes attached to the floor and are used to automate warehouse operations at a variety of major retailers in addition to Amazon, including Toys 'R' Us, the Gap, Walgreens, and Staples.
A year after the acquisition, Amazon had about 1,400 Kiva robots in operation but had only begun the process of integrating the machines into its massive warehouses. One Wall Street analyst estimates that the robots will ultimately allow the company to cut its order fulfillment costs by as much as 40 percent.
The Kroger Company, one of the largest grocery retailers in the United States, has also introduced highly automated distribution centers. Kroger's system is capable of receiving pallets containing large supplies of a single product from vendors and then disassembling them and creating new pallets containing a variety of different products that are ready to ship to stores. It is also able to organize the way that products are stacked on the mixed pallets in order to optimize the stocking of shelves once they arrive at stores. The automated warehouses completely eliminate the need for human intervention, except for loading and unloading the pallets onto trucks.
The obvious impact that these automated systems have on jobs has not been lost on organized labor, and the Teamsters Union has repeatedly clashed with Kroger, as well as other grocery retailers, over their introduction. Both the Kiva robots and Kroger's automated system do leave some jobs for people, and these are primarily in areas, such as packing a mixture of items for final shipment to customers, that require visual recognition and dexterity. Of course, these are the very areas in which innovations like Industrial Perception's box-moving robots are rapidly advancing the technical frontier.
The second transformative force is likely to be the explosive growth of the fully automated self-service retail sector - or, in other words, intelligent vending machines and kiosks. One study projects that the value of products and services vended in this market will grow from about $740 billion in 2010 to more than $1.1 trillion by 2015. Vending machines have progressed far beyond dispensing sodas, snacks, and lousy instant coffee, and sophisticated machines that sell consumer electronics products like Apple's iPod and iPad are now common in airports and upscale hotels. AVT, Inc., one of the leading manufacturers of automated retail machines, claims that it can design a custom self-service solution for virtually any product.
Vending machines make it possible to dramatically reduce three of the most significant costs incurred in the retail business: real estate, labor, and theft by customers and employees. In addition to providing 24-hour service, many of the machines include video screens and are able to offer targeted point-of-sale advertising that's geared toward enticing customers to purchase related products in much the same way that a human sales clerk might do. They can also collect customer email addresses and send receipts. In essence, the machines offer many of the advantages of online ordering, with the added benefit of instant delivery.
While the proliferation of vending machines and kiosks is certain to eliminate traditional retail sales jobs, these machines will also, of course, create jobs in areas like maintenance, restocking, and repair. The number of those new jobs, however, is likely to be more limited than you might expect. The latest-generation machines are directly connected to the Internet and provide a continuous stream of sales and diagnostic data; they are also specifically designed to minimize the labor costs associated with their operation.
In 2010, David Dunning was the regional operations supervisor responsible for overseeing the maintenance and restocking of Redbox movie rental kiosks in the Chicago area. Redbox has over 42,000 kiosks in the United States and Canada, typically located at convenience stores and supermarkets, and rents about 2 million videos per day. Dunning managed the Chicago-area kiosks with a staff of just seven. Restocking the machines is highly automated; in fact, the most labor-intensive aspect of the job is swapping the translucent movie advertisements displayed on the kiosk - a process that typically takes less than two minutes for each machine. Dunning and his staff divide their time between the warehouse, where new movies arrive, and their cars and homes, where they are able to access and manage the machines via the Internet. The kiosks are designed from the ground up for remote maintenance. For example, if a machine jams it will report this immediately, and a technician can log in with his or her laptop computer, jiggle the mechanism, and fix the problem without the need to visit the site. New movies are typically released on Tuesdays, but the machines can be restocked at any time prior to that; the kiosk will automatically make the movies available for rental at the right time. That allows technicians to schedule restocking visits to avoid traffic.
While the jobs that Dunning and his staff have are certainly interesting and desirable, in number they are a fraction of what a traditional retail chain would create. The now-defunct Blockbuster, for example, once had dozens of stores in greater Chicago, each employing its own sales staff. At its peak, Blockbuster had a total of about 9,000 stores and 60,000 employees. That works out to about seven jobs per store - roughly the same number that Redbox employed in the entire region serviced by Dunning's team.
The third major force likely to disrupt employment in the retail sector will be the introduction of increased automation and robotics into stores as brick and mortar retailers strive to remain competitive. The same innovations that are enabling manufacturing robots to advance the frontier in areas like physical dexterity and visual recognition will eventually allow retail automation to begin moving from warehouses into more challenging and varied environments like stocking shelves in stores. In fact, as far back as 2005, Walmart was already investigating the possibility of using robots that rove store aisles at night and automatically scan barcodes in order to track product inventories.
At the same time, self-service checkout aisles and in-store information kiosks are sure to become easier to use, as well as more common. Mobile devices will also become an ever more important self-service tool. Future shoppers will rely more and more on their phones as a way to shop, pay, and get help and information about products while in traditional retail settings. The mobile disruption of retail is already under way. Walmart, for example, is testing an experimental program that allows shoppers to scan barcodes and then checkout and pay with their phones - completely avoiding long checkout lines.
Silvercar, a start-up rental car company, offers the capability to reserve and pick up a car without ever having to interact with a rental clerk; the customer simply scans a barcode to unlock the car and then drives away. As natural language technology like Apple's Siri or even more powerful systems like IBM's Watson continue to advance and become more affordable, it's easy to imagine shoppers soon being able to ask their mobile devices for assistance in much the same way they might ask a store employee. The difference, of course, is that the customer will never have to wait for or hunt down the employee; the virtual assistant will always be instantly available and will rarely, if ever, give an inaccurate answer.
While many retailers may choose to bring automation into traditional retail configurations, others may instead elect to entirely redesign stores - perhaps, in essence, turning them into scaled-up vending machines. Stores of this type might consist of an automated warehouse with an attached showroom where customers could examine product samples and place orders. Orders might then be delivered directly to customers, or perhaps even loaded robotically into vehicles. Regardless of the specific technological path ultimately followed by the retail industry, it's difficult to imagine that the eventual result won't be more robots and machines - and significantly fewer jobs for people.
More books on Work
In the late 20th century, while the blue-collar working class gave way to the forces of globalization and automation, the educated elite looked on with benign condescension. Too bad for those people whose jobs were mindless enough to be taken over by third world teenagers or, more humiliatingly, machines. The solution, pretty much agreed upon across the political spectrum, was education. Americans had to become intellectually nimble enough to keep ahead of the job-destroying trends unleashed by technology, both robotization and the telecommunication systems that make outsourcing possible. Anyone who wanted a spot in the middle class would have to possess a college degree — as well as flexibility, creativity and a continually upgraded skill set.
But, as Martin Ford documents in Rise of the Robots, the job-eating maw of technology now threatens even the nimblest and most expensively educated. Lawyers, radiologists and software designers, among others, have seen their work evaporate to India or China. Tasks that would seem to require a distinctively human capacity for nuance are increasingly assigned to algorithms, like the ones currently being introduced to grade essays on college exams. Particularly terrifying to me, computer programs can now write clear, publishable articles, and, as Ford reports, Wired magazine quotes an expert's prediction that within about a decade 90 percent of news articles will be computer-generated.
It's impossible to read Rise of the Robots - for review anyway - without thinking about how the business of book reviewing could itself be automated and possibly improved by computers. First, the job of 'close reading,' now commonly undertaken with Post-its and a felt-tip red pen, will be handed off to a scanner that will instantly note all recurring words, phrases and themes. Next, where a human reviewer racks her brain for social and historical context, the review-bot will send algorithms out into the ether to scan every other book by the author as well as every other book or article on the subject. Finally, all this information will be synthesized with more fairness and erudition than any wet, carbon-based thinking apparatus could muster. Most of this could be achieved today, though, as Ford notes, if you want more creativity and self-reflexivity from your review-bot, you may have to wait until 2050.
This is both a humbling book and, in the best sense, a humble one. Ford, a software entrepreneur who both understands the technology and has made a thorough study of its economic consequences, never succumbs to the obvious temptation to overdramatize or exaggerate. In fact, he has little to say about one of the most ominous arenas for automation - the military, where not only are pilots being replaced by drones, but robots like the ones that now defuse bombs are being readied for deployment as infantry. Nor does Ford venture much into the spectacular possibilities being opened up by wearable medical devices, which can already monitor just about any kind of biometric data that can be collected in an I.C.U. Human health workers may eventually be cut out of the loop, as tiny devices to sense blood glucose levels, for example, learn how to signal other tiny implanted devices to release insulin.
But Rise of the Robots doesn't need any more examples; the human consequences of robotization are already upon us, and skillfully chronicled here. Although the unemployment rate has fallen to officially acceptable levels, long-term unemployment persists, and underemployment - part-time jobs when full-time jobs are needed, or jobs that do not reflect a worker's education - is on the rise. College-educated people often flounder for years after graduation, finding temp jobs and permanent roommates. Adults of both sexes are drifting out of the work force in despair. All of this has happened by choice, though not the choice of the average citizen and worker. In the wake of the recession, Ford writes, many companies decided that 'ever-advancing information technology' allows them to operate successfully without rehiring the people they had laid off. And there should be no doubt that technology is advancing in the direction of full unemployment. Ford quotes the co-founder of a start-up dedicated to the automation of gourmet hamburger production: 'Our device isn't meant to make employees more efficient. It's meant to completely obviate them.'
Ford offers little hope that emerging technologies will eventually generate new forms of employment, in the way that blacksmiths yielded to autoworkers in the early 20th century. He predicts that new industries will 'rarely, if ever, be highly labor-intensive,' pointing to companies like YouTube and Instagram, which are characterized by 'tiny workforces and huge valuations and revenues.' On another front, 3-D printing is poised to make a mockery of manufacturing as we knew it. Truck driving may survive for a while - at least until self-driving vehicles start rolling out of Detroit or, perhaps, San Jose.
The disappearance of jobs has not ushered in a new age of leisure, as social theorists predicted uneasily in the 1950s. Would the masses utilize their freedom from labor in productive ways, such as civic participation and the arts, or would they die of boredom in their ranch houses? Somehow, it was usually assumed, they would still manage to eat.
The prospect of machines stealing our jobs has perturbed and enraged humans for at least 200 years. The Luddites hit the alarm bell, and not without reason: The automation of weaving and spinning technology displaced an entire class of skilled artisans. But ever since, economists and historians have dismissed the Luddites as jokes, because the forces of industrialization they decried ended up making the world a far richer and more comfortable place. Technological progress has created far more jobs than it has destroyed.
So far. But this time might be different. This time, writes Martin Ford in Rise of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of a Jobless Future, the robots are coming for (almost) all the jobs. They're getting too smart, too flexible and too convenient. And that's a problem, because if robots take all the jobs, our long march of progress may well go into reverse.
Ford's thesis is not new. Similar outbursts of techno-pessimism pop up every time the economy takes a downturn or machines make a paradigm leap. Indeed, Ford, a former Silicon Valley software entrepreneur, has already written one book on the same topic, 2009's The Lights in the Tunnel: Automation, Accelerating Technology and the Economy of the Future.'
'Rise of the Robots' is better than 'Lights in the Tunnel,' in part because Ford has spent the intervening years honing his argument in response to criticisms levied at his first warning salvo. 'Rise of the Robots' is also more relevant now than ever; the arrival of self-driving cars, Jeopardy-winning IBM computers, package-delivering drones, Siri and the rapidly accelerating digitization of everything strongly suggests that the technological progress we've already witnessed is just the beginning. Lucid, comprehensive and unafraid to grapple fairly with those who dispute Ford's basic thesis, 'Rise of the Robots' is an indispensable contribution to a long-running argument.
But what's most interesting about 'Rise of the Robots' is that it isn't actually a narrative about the imminent triumph of soulless automatons. Robots aren't the enemy. The real villain here is capitalism: a stupid form of capitalism that seems dead set on destroying itself. It would be ironic if it weren't our own future that was in peril. The relentless drive by capital to cut costs and boost profits is threatening to destroy the wellspring of economic growth that capitalism requires. Because when there are no jobs for humans, there will be no consumers with the disposable income to buy the products being produced so efficiently by robots. Henry Ford understood this when he paid his workers high enough wages to buy his cars. Today's titans of the economy appear to have forgotten the lesson.
There's more than just the inexorable advance of machine intelligence at play here. "Rise of the Robots" argues that globalization, the decline of unions and the capture of government by special interests have all contributed to a well-documented rise in economic inequality. Increasingly sophisticated automation exacerbates the destructive effect of all these other factors. The result: "The fruits of innovation throughout the economy are now accruing almost entirely to business owners and investors," writes Ford.
So what can we do? The standard prescription is more education. Keep ahead of the robots by acquiring skills. Some techno-utopians go so far as to suggest that technology will save us from technology, by "disrupting" higher education with cheap online classes, and thus vastly expanding educational opportunity for all.
Ford doesn't buy it. Staying ahead is a loser's race, in which ever larger numbers of people fight for ever smaller numbers of jobs.
"We are running up against a fundamental limit both in terms of the capabilities of the people being herded into colleges and the number of high-skill jobs that will be available for them if they manage to graduate," writes Ford. "The problem is that the skills ladder is not really a ladder at all: it is a pyramid, and there is only so much room at the top."
That's a bleak view. Even bleaker, however, are the prospects for success of Ford's preferred "dramatic policy response" - a redistribution of wealth from the winners to everybody else, in the form of a "guaranteed basic income" that ensures displaced workers have enough income to keep the consumer economy chugging along.
Ford is not wrong when he declares that "a fundamental restructuring of our economic rules will be required." But it's hard to see how this will happen. Which leaves us in a pickle. Economic inequality is growing. Robots are gobbling up more and more jobs. A broken political system is unable to fix the problem. Call it the Luddites' revenge. The Industrial Revolution's chickens are finally coming home to roost.
There is a consoling story about technology. Yes, it goes, of course these new machines are going to take away your job, but they will create lots of much nicer jobs in their place. The professional classes like this idea because they think that their jobs are quite nice enough and they are terribly difficult so no machine is ever likely to be able to do them.
The story, though, is a lie and the professionals are deluded. Take this review, for example. Here am I thinking my decades of reading and writing and my sheer humanness mean that only I can do this. But then I get to page 86 of The Rise of the Robots by Silicon Valley entrepreneur Martin Ford and I learn of some unspeakably evil software called StatsMonkey that can automate sports - and any other - reporting. I am also told of a prediction that, within 15 years, 90% of all news articles will be produced by robots; book reviews, presumably, soon after.
The destruction of jobs outlined in these two books is alarming and, at times, surreal. Jerry Kaplan, for example, imagines squadrons of drones repainting your entire house in an afternoon. But it is the white-collar holocaust that is more startling. Teaching jobs in schools and universities are threatened, particularly the latter as whole degree courses are offered online. In medicine, diagnostics will be handled by machines - probably a good thing, says Ford, as more than 98,000 people a year are killed in America by medical errors. Surveys can and will be robotised. Law firms already employ lawyers simply to stare at a screen and press buttons marked 'relevant' or “irrelevant”, all the other work having been done by robots. Managers, meanwhile, will simply do what the algorithms tell them.
So it is time to be afraid, very afraid. Perhaps half of all jobs might soon be done by robots. Weep, middle classes, for your highly educated offspring might be lucky to be flipping burgers. Oh, sorry, forget that, the robots can already do burgers much better - Momentum Machines of San Francisco (where else?) promises robotised gourmet burgers for the price of a McDonald’s.
The hard truth is, as both books make clear, that we can no longer rely on technology to generate jobs. There are many reasons, but, really, there is only one: money. In 1979 General Motors made $11bn on the backs of 840,000 employees; in 2012 Google made profits of $14bn from the labour of 38,000 workers. In 2012, Facebook bought the work of Instagram’s 13 employees for $1bn; in 2014 it bought the ingenuity of WhatsApp's 55 employees for $19bn. The link between big money and job creation has been broken.
That these are both voices from within the technological system gives them a high degree of authority. But, though Ford and Kaplan mean well, the chances are that neither will be heard. The fire ahead has so successfully seduced us with its gadgets that we may not realise it is hot until it is too late. For the moment there is no hope that the rise of the robots will not be accompanied by the fall of the humans.
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