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Rise of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of a Jobless Future

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What are the jobs of the future? How many will there be? And who will have them? We might imagine—and hope—that today's industrial revolution will unfold like the last: even as some jobs are eliminated, more will be created to deal with the new innovations of a new era. In Rise of the Robots, Silicon Valley entrepreneur Martin Ford argues that this is absolutely not the case. As technology continues to accelerate and machines begin taking care of themselves, fewer people will be necessary. Artificial intelligence is already well on its way to making “good jobs” obsolete: many paralegals, journalists, office workers, and even computer programmers are poised to be replaced by robots and smart software. As progress continues, blue and white collar jobs alike will evaporate, squeezing working- and middle-class families ever further. At the same time, households are under assault from exploding costs, especially from the two major industries—education and health care—that, so far, have not been transformed by information technology. The result could well be massive unemployment and inequality as well as the implosion of the consumer economy itself.

In Rise of the Robots, Ford details what machine intelligence and robotics can accomplish, and implores employers, scholars, and policy makers alike to face the implications. The past solutions to technological disruption, especially more training and education, aren't going to work, and we must decide, now, whether the future will see broad-based prosperity or catastrophic levels of inequality and economic insecurity. Rise of the Robots is essential reading for anyone who wants to understand what accelerating technology means for their own economic prospects—not to mention those of their children—as well as for society as a whole.

352 pages, Hardcover

First published May 5, 2015

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About the author

Martin Ford

40 books238 followers
Martin Ford is the author of the two books Rise of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of a Jobless Future (2015) and The Lights In the Tunnel: Automation, Accelerating Technology and the Economy of the Future (2009) — both dealing with the effects of automation and mass-unemployment. He is the founder of a Silicon Valley-based software development firm, and obtained a computer engineering degree from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, and a graduate business degree from UCLA's Anderson School of Management.

Ford was the first 21st century author[1] to publish a book (The Lights in the Tunnel in 2009) making a strong argument that advances in robotics and artificial intelligence would eventually make a large fraction of the human workforce obsolete.[2] In subsequent years, other books have made similar arguments, and Ford's thesis has been supported by a number of formal academic studies, most notably by Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael A. Osborne of Oxford University, who found in 2013 that the jobs held by roughly 47 percent of the U.S. workforce could be susceptible to automation within the next two decades.[3]

In his most recent book Rise of the Robots, he argues that the growth of automation now threatens many highly-educated people, like lawyers, radiologists, and software designers.[4] To deal with the rise of unemployment, he is in favor of a basic income guarantee.[5]

Both of Ford's books focus on the fact that widespread automation could potentially undermine economic growth or even lead to a deflationary spiral because jobs are the primary mechanism for distributing purchasing power to consumers.[6] He has warned that as income becomes ever more concentrated into the hands of a tiny elite, the bulk of consumers will eventually lack the income and confidence to continue supplying demand to the mass market industries that form the backbone of the modern economy.[7]

Ford strongly supports both capitalism and continued technological progress but believes it will be necessary to adapt our economic system to the new reality created by advances in artificial intelligence, and that some form of basic income guarantee is the best way to do this.[8] In Rise of the Robots he cites the Peltzman effect (or risk compensation) as evidence that the safety net created by a guaranteed income might well result in increased economic risk taking and a more dynamic and entrepreneurial economy.

Ford has also argued for incorporating explicit incentives — especially for pursuing education — into a basic income scheme, suggesting for example that those who graduate from high school (or complete an equivalency exam) ought to receive a somewhat higher guaranteed income than those who drop out. Without this, many marginal or "at risk" students would be presented with a perverse incentive to simply drop out and collect the basic income.

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Profile Image for Warwick.
844 reviews14.6k followers
February 7, 2017
A popular campfire ghost story among businesses and economists these days is the ‘jobless future’ – the idea that rampant industrial automation and computerisation will soon mean a world where intelligent robots can do everything we can better and more efficiently than we can do it. At this year's World Economic Forum, everyone seemed keen to argue against this scenario, and I spent most of the week trudging across Davos from one freezing interviewee to another who wanted to tell me why it wasn't so. Certainly this smartly-written book, which feels like 200 pages of getting punched in the face by Baymax, does make an excellent primer on the thesis.

You can see why business leaders might be worried by Ford's book. Not that it's bad news for the people in charge, far from it – just that it's bad press. Robots, which began by taking over routine or dangerous labour-intensive work, are now attaining levels of skill and ‘intelligence’ (in certain senses of the word) which mean that they can comfortably handle white-collar jobs too. Pretty much anything involving data analysis or manipulation of information is fair game, and so is a lot of supposedly creative work like journalism:

Things looked bleak for the Angels when they trailed by two runs in the ninth inning, but Los Angeles recovered thanks to a key single from Vladimir Guerrero to pull out a 7-6 victory over the Boston Red Sox at Fenway Park on Sunday.

Guerrero drove in two Angels runners. He went 2-4 at the plate.

“When it comes to honoring Nick Adenhart, and what happened in April in Anaheim, yes, it probably was the biggest hit [of my career],” Guerrero said. “Because I'm dedicating that to a former teammate, a guy that passed away.”

That's the start of a machine-authored sports report; you can expect to see a lot more of these in the immediate future, and Forbes already generates most of their financial dispatches this way. (I'm pretty sure you could write a program to produce highly upvoted Goodreads reviews too, for that matter, if you gave Watson access to a large enough library of GIFs of men taking their shirts off.) Almost whatever you do, from medical research to appearing on Jeopardy!, a robot could probably replace you now or soon.

Of course, there is nothing very new about this narrative. People have been worried (justly) about machines taking their jobs since the first saboteur broke a weaving machine with a well-aimed sabot, or the first luddite smashed a Jacquard loom with a well-aimed – er – ludd. And indeed, critics of Ford suggest precisely that while individual jobs may be lost, the amount of work available will not necessarily change. After all, if you went back and asked weavers and farmers what their children's children would be doing when those job markets collapsed, they would have been unlikely to say, ‘Oh, they'll probably work in search engine optimisation. Or extreme yoga.’ New areas of work are likely to appear in the future whose nature and extent we cannot even really guess at.

Nonetheless, Ford, like doom-mongers before him, believes there are good reasons for thinking that this time is different. Thanks to robotisation and automation in general, productivity is now so efficient that companies can produce vast numbers of goods without employing many people at all. Companies like Google or Apple have built multi-billion operations on miniature workforces, and the suggestion is that we might soon reach a ‘tipping point where job creation will begin to fall consistently short of what is required to fully employ the workforce’.

Already we see that while big companies are continuing to make big profits, their revenues have actually been flat for some time – the extra money is coming almost exclusively from saving labour costs (i.e. by firing people). Obviously, this contributes to a situation of ballooning inequality where the middle class is gradually hollowed-out. But although this is very alarming, it isn't sustainable indefinitely. The key point is that ‘workers are also consumers, and they rely on their wages to purchase the products and services produced by the economy’. To state the obvious, if everyone was out of work, then companies would not make any money either because the economy would have ground to a halt.

In fact to me it seemed increasingly obvious, reading the book, that Ford's real target is not automation itself but rather unrestrained free-market capitalism. The economist David Autor, who is cited in this book, pointed out at WEF that the countries with the highest levels of robotisation – Japan, South Korea and Germany – are among those with the lowest levels of unemployment. While automation can clearly exaggerate the problems of income inequality and workforce polarisation, the effects of this seem more muted outside the US in countries which have more robust social or political systems.

Ford's own suggestions are good ones, and they have everything to do with economic policy and little to do with industrial automation per se. He thinks that as workforces are set to shrink, taxation should shift ‘away from labour and towards capital’ (with wealth taxes for instance); and, more controversially, that ‘everyone should have at least a minimal claim on a nation's overall economic prosperity’ in the form of a universal basic income. (Since this book was published, Finland has launched a closely-watched pilot scheme of exactly this kind.) It's difficult to see the idea getting any traction in the United States, but then again, after four years of being run by a special-needs gameshow host, they might be prepared to consider anything.
Profile Image for Trevor.
1,301 reviews22.1k followers
August 20, 2018
This is a remarkable book, not least since it is so lucid – the writer has a good grasp of IT and economics and this makes for some uncomfortable reading. I was in a meeting the other day with about half a dozen other people – all academics – and I mentioned I had been reading quite a lot lately about technology and employment and I was becoming quite concerned that we are about to face a kind of jobs apocalypse. Mostly, the people in the meeting thought I was crazy. One of them said she had read something from the 1980s that said the exact same thing – and yet, the tragedy predicted never came to pass. I was going to mention Hume to her – who once said that just because the sun rose yesterday and the day before and the day before that, doesn’t prove it will rise tomorrow. But her confidence surprised me.

The idea that the economy always produces more jobs on the back of technological change – that the Luddites were wrong and they will always continue to be proven wrong – has become received wisdom. I think it might come as a bit of a surprise to people that organisations like the IMF put out a working paper this year with the title: ‘Should We Fear the Robot Revolution? (The Correct Answer is Yes)’ – by the way, I didn’t add the part of that title that are in parenthesis, that was the IMF themselves (https://www.imf.org/en/Publications/W...)

The OECD also put out a report on ‘The Risk of Automation for Jobs in OECD Countries: A comparative analysis’ (https://www.oecd-ilibrary.org/social-...) which estimates that 9% (one-in-eleven) jobs in OECD countries are at threat of being lost to automation – and that this is presented as a good news story in the report, because it is a reworking of a now classic 2013 report from Oxford University which estimated that 47% of all jobs in the US were at risk of being lost over the next couple of decades to technological change (https://www.oxfordmartin.ox.ac.uk/pub...). I’ve recently reviewed a book by the founder of the World Economic Forum which argues much the same thing (https://www.goodreads.com/review/show...).

The point I’m trying to make here is that these organisations aren’t particularly fringe, nor are they the sorts of organisations that are run by left-leaning economic conspiracy theorists or pessimists renowned for constantly seeing trends pointing to a crisis of capitalism. These are organisations that are about as close to the heart of the system as it is possible to get.

This book provides as clear an explanation of why we should be worried that this time might be different as I’ve read so far.

The major problem identified is that this time the jobs that are being replaced are from the middle of the employment hierarchy, and these are being devastated in ways we have only seen happen to jobs at the bottom being lost before. One of the remarkable shifts in the economy to happen was at the end of the 1800s when agricultural jobs were replaced by tractors. This produced a huge shift, in the US economy in particular, but as the farm workers moved to cities they generally found jobs in manufacturing, which eventually had better incomes than they had previously enjoyed. But this was a shift from low skilled employment to another low skilled job. Many of the job transitions likely to occur this time around will be from medium skilled to low skilled jobs, as the jobs in the middle disappear.

And what will make this worse is that those leaving the middle skilled jobs are likely to be quite highly educated – with at least an undergraduate degree. As the author says at one point here, we don’t really have an employment ladder, but rather an employment pyramid. But even this metaphor is only partly right, because soon the apex of the pyramid will be floating in mid-air, with no way to reach it from the base. In the US in particular, the ability to move between castes is now virtually non-existent – and the author makes it clear this is only going to get much worse. The US has less social mobility than anywhere else in the developed world. The ’American dream’ has been a myth for quite some time, but then myths prove to be remarkably resilient and almost entirely impervious to conflicting data.

This polarisation is significantly different from the impact of previous technological advances. And it is made much worse by the fact that since we have been convinced that the best way to ensure a middle-class life style is to have a middle-class education, many of those people who would have expected to have had a job in the middle of the employment hierarchy are being shifted down toward the bottom, and so they will be saddled with college debts they will be unlikely to ever pay off.

All of this also comes about while effective demand in the economy is being crushed. The author says the likely impacts of this have been a bit of an open secret for some time. To quote the bit I found particularly disturbing:

“By 2005, the trend toward increased concentration of both income and spending was so obvious and relentless that a team of stock market analysts at Citigroup famously wrote a series of memos intended only for their wealthiest clients. The analysts argued that the United States was evolving into a “plutonomy”—a top-heavy economic system where growth is driven primarily by a tiny, prosperous elite who consume an ever larger fraction of everything the economy produces. Among other things, the memos advised wealthy investors to shy away from the stocks of companies catering to the rapidly dissolving American middle class and instead focus on purveyors of luxury goods and services aimed at the richest consumers”

He points out that this is unlikely to be sustainable and as demand for goods and services collapse among the middle-classes, it isn’t at all clear how the economy will continue to grow.

The problem is that he also doesn’t see there being much hope of a sudden surge in jobs. In fact, quite the opposite given the employment potential from new industries. I’m going to quote the whole first paragraph of Chapter Seven:

“YouTube was founded in 2005 by three people. Less than two years later, the company was purchased by Google for about $1.65 billion. At the time of its acquisition, YouTube employed a mere sixty-five people, the majority of them highly skilled engineers. That works out to a valuation of over $25 million per employee. In April 2012, Facebook acquired photo-sharing start-up Instagram for $1 billion. The company employed thirteen people. That’s roughly $77 million per worker. Fast-forward another two years to February 2014 and Facebook once again stepped up to the plate, this time purchasing mobile messaging company WhatsApp for $19 billion. WhatsApp had a workforce of fifty-five—giving it a valuation of a staggering $345 million per employee.”

The simple lesson is that 21st century companies are Capital and not Labour intensive. Perhaps there is something everyone is missing, but it simply isn’t clear where the mass jobs of the future are going to come from. And worse, this trend has already been going on for decades. One of the big growth areas has been health – particularly related to an ageing population, but since most of these people will not have any savings it isn’t clear how they are going to be able to afford these expensive services.

Another problem is that the developing world might have missed the boat to develop. Because production is becoming so capital intensive, the benefits of being a nation with cheap labour are diminishing. If factories aren’t particularly employing anyone it isn’t much cheaper to not employ Chinese workers than it is to not employ American ones. And so we are witnessing ‘reshoring’ of industries, but without employment growth. This is likely to mean that one of the major ways that under-developed nations have used to lift themselves out of poverty might be about to pass them by. This isn’t unlike what is happening to the poor in developed nations – unable to get work, watching the jobs they once were able to do to get into the job market being taken by people with higher qualifications than they are ever likely to obtain, they are being squeezed out of the labour market with no way back in.

And all of this is happening at a time when the rich and powerful have access to remarkable levels of surveillance to make sure we don’t get out of line – you know, if you wanted to write a dystopian novel, you wouldn’t even need to make anything up. It is important to remember that the US already has the world’s highest per capita prison population – something in itself that already speaks to the lack of need for employees in the economy.

This book presents a terrifying vision of our immediate future. And while none of this is inevitable, to change the direction we are going in will take more effort than we seem to have been able to muster in relation to other crisis points. For instance, he suggests a universal basic income as an essential first step – but this would be so far outside of the interests of those benefiting the most from the current state of the world that it would be hard to imagine them giving this to us without a fight – after all, it would only happen if the rich agreed to be taxed enough to pay for it. If I was a betting man, my money would be on more of the same.

This is a very interesting book and presents more sides to these arguments than I have been able to in this review. Again, I didn’t come away from reading this feeling terribly confident in our collective futures.
Profile Image for Richard.
1,147 reviews1,043 followers
September 11, 2018
Update September 2018: (previous updates after my review)

I lost track of this review, otherwise I would have written this update in May 2018.

A few paragraphs down, I point out that there was a video that came out in June 2015 that showed robots failing amusingly — see it here: At least they tried: Robot ‘epic fails’ compilation from DARPA Robotics Challenge. They can’t open a door without falling down! They sometimes fall over just trying to walk! It was hilarious, and I’m sure a lot of folks took that to heart: don’t worry about killer robots. Just climb the stairs and you’re safe!

And how have things changed? Well, take a look at this video from a mere 35 months after that previous one: Humanoid robot runs through the park by itself. Before you get too dismissive — hey, running through the park? That's not so tough! — check out the sequence that starts at about 21 seconds in, and ask if you could do that? Stairs clearly aren’t a problem anymore. Where you gonna run now, human?


In the coming years, your job is very likely to evaporate. That might mean now , or it might mean twenty-five or thirty years. But unless you’re extraordinarily unusual, it’ll happen.

I’m going to start by giving a few examples.

Take the profession of accountancy. I’m oversimplifying, but pretty much what an accountant does is match an entity’s financial information to the appropriate laws and rules, and then provide analysis of how well those match up, and maybe fill out some forms. Guess what? There’s nothing in there that a software program couldn’t do. In fact, many people that don’t make a lot of money already use such software to file their taxes, and every year that software gets a little more sophisticated, and a lot of techie folks use software that leaves all the other accountants doing less and less, year by year. The profession of accountant will likely be almost completely extinct within a decade (long before we see those autonomous cars everyone keeps talking about).

Let’s look at a something much tougher, like a barber or hair stylist. The job there is to examine the client’s features, ask questions about what that client wants, and suggest a style that is both feasible and desirous, and then cut hair to that style. Right now, that is about as far from what a computer could do as any profession in existence.

Why, though?

Well, first, speedy dexterity isn’t something that robots are too good at, except when they can be programmed to do precisely the same thing, over and over again, in which case they do much better than meager humans. And comprehension of a complex visual scene is another really tough computational problem. But if you’ve been following the pace of progress, you know that it is only a matter of time before the robots get there.

There’s a video floating around showing robots failing amusingly (but miserably, and with silly music, so we can feel superior!) during a DARPA challenge that folks are getting a kick out of. Recall, however, how very recently the idea of a robot walking around on two feet would have been absurd. Now we laugh because they sometimes fall down while trying to open doors or climb stairs or get into cars. Given the many millions going into research, how long do you think that will last?

A vast database could already be built of head shapes, facial and hair features, just by looking at the treasure trove of images already accessible via the world wide web. AI that learns which of those are considered comical and which attractive would still be a challenge, but is probably an easier task than programming Watson was for IBM. Programming a hair-cutting robot with the knowledge of what set of snips will create the desired look would be even easier, since it could be endlessly simulated purely in virtual space.

Yeah, it will take years before we see this happen, but that just means it will be at the tail end of the tsunami instead of at the beginning, where the accountants are already feeling vulnerable. (This makes me wonder, how many out-of-work accountants will be able to get jobs as hair dressers?)

There are some jobs that, as far as we can tell, are completely out of range of the robots and their AI software, but that number will get smaller and smaller over the decades, as engineers learn to make the software more sophisticated and the hardware it runs on continues to get faster.

The real sweet spot for humans is to be truly creative. That doesn’t mean anyone in a “creative field” gets a pass, however. AI is already composing quotidian music and doing the rote job of journalists. Being really creative means knowing when and how to break the rules in a way that is fundamentally unexpected. A computer never would have created John Cage’s 4’33”, for example.

The work of Thomas Kuhn, whose The Structure of Scientific Revolutions made the word “paradigm” the cliché it is today, illustrates this. Most science, like most creativity, exists within a paradigm that people in the field understand. Most “normal science”, like most normal creativity, doesn’t bust out of that paradigm. Highly sophisticated software can be taught that paradigm, and how to explore its domain, and how to evaluate whether the result of those exploration are consistent with other highly-regarded results.

How this revolution is progressing is what Rise of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of a Jobless Future is all about.

Now, you might be skeptical. This does sound, after all, like the Luddite Fallacy, doesn’t it? If you don’t know the term, it refers to the time at the beginning of the industrial revolution when crafts folk that used hand looms to weave cloth tried to keep the innovation machine looms from making them redundant. The “fallacy” part is because there have always been compensatory effects — some people lose their careers, but the gains in technological capacity and productivity make other forms of production possible, employing even more people.

So why is this time so different? Because what the machines are replacing is different.

The simple machines replaced work that was dirty and dangerous. In the past century, more sophisticated machines replaced work that was dull — those robots that bolt together auto bodies, for example, replaced large numbers of men who used to get pretty good wages for doing an unremittingly boring job.

But today, machines are replacing our minds, not our muscles. More importantly, it is very unlikely that some vast new field of economic activity will suddenly appear on the horizon that will employ all of the workers made redundant — once machines are stronger and faster, more accurate and precise, more patient and (at least) as smart, what kind of job would that be?

If you need more convincing, here’s an analogy. Once upon a time, humans used animals to do our brute labor. It actually took thousands of years for us to arrange that, of course. Before we’d invented the wheel, animals could carry stuff on their backs. Reliable wheels were actually quite a stunning leap forward! Eventually, animals could do most of our hardest labor, except where our brains made us more adaptive to change or subtle details.

But think about what happened when we invented the steam engine. The first practical steam engine came along (as a stunning number of other developments) right near the end of the eighteenth century (which is related to those Luddites were rioting a few decades later). Even though it took millennia for us to learn to use animals, in most ways we’d retired them within a century. The key point is that even though those animal muscles could have still been used, there were effectively no jobs for which they were actually better than machines.

That’s where our brains are about now.

Now, there are still people that don’t believe this is going to happen. For example, in the essay How Technology Is Destroying Jobs, a professor of engineering at MIT states:
❝For that reason, Leonard says, it is easier to see how robots could work with humans than on their own in many applications. “People and robots working together can happen much more quickly than robots simply replacing humans,” he says. “That’s not going to happen in my lifetime at a massive scale. The semiautonomous taxi will still have a driver.”❞
Really? By all indications, autonomous vehicles are already safer than human drivers. Although there are still tricky situations where they could make disastrous choices, they’d still probably have a better overall safety record than us, and they’ll be getting better — we won’t, except with their help. So why would that taxi company want to pay to have a more-fallible human sitting there, bored, to second-guess the computer? It is true that people and robots working together can sometimes do better, but in far too many cases that will be a fairly short interim period, until the software engineers understand what humans are contributing and replace those final aspects — economics will create huge incentives to get the human out of the picture.

An article in the Harvard Business Review attempts to push those “complementaries”, too. It lists five “augmentation strategies”.

First, “step up”. Head for higher intellectual ground.

What’s the flaw here? Well, the top of the pyramid would be a great place, but there simply isn’t much room there. The example given is that, instead of using a biochemist to do a preliminary evaluation on a candidate drug, let the computers do it, and have the biochemist “pick up at the point where the math leaves off”. The difficulty is there is already a researcher doing that, and the computers are replacing the dozens of lower-tier chemists that are doing the simpler work. It’s like telling a sous-chef to “step up” and become the restaurant’s chef de cuisine! That might work for a very small number of very talented sous-chefs, but it won’t work on any large scale at all.

Second, “step aside”. Use skills that can’t be codified.

One example used here is even more absurd than the biochemist example: “Apple’s revered designer Jonathan Ive can’t download his taste to a computer.” Obviously, we can’t all be Jony Ive. But what about that accountant that was mentioned at the beginning? Can’t they learn to use personality skills to be better at interacting with the clients? Sure — but won’t all the accountants want that gig? And being the “human face” of the software might be a safe job for quite some time, it does reflect a de-skilling from the original job. This is also the category for those truly creative types that can consistently deliver outside-the-box thinking that the programmers can’t predict, and can’t be found in correlations within huge datasets.

Third, “step in”. Be the person that double-checks the software for mistakes.

An example given here involved mortgage-application evaluation software that rejected former Fed Reserve chief Ben Bernanke’s mortgage application because it couldn’t properly evaluate his career prospects on the lecture circuit. This will be a pretty sweet job category, but it isn’t because the software will continue to make “mistakes”. It’ll be because the software is taught to recognize unusual situations, and automatically funnels them to human assistants. Like the human co-pilot of an semiautonomous taxicab, there will be a lot of financial incentives to make this a very rare job, though.

Fourth, “step narrowly”. Find a sub-sub-sub-speciality that isn’t economical to automate.

The example in the article shows clearly how narrow these opportunities are: imagine being the person who specializes in matching the sellers and buyers of Dunkin’ Donuts franchises! Yeah, all the real estate agents who hate Zillow.com would love to be that guy, or his equivalent. I like my example better: you know all those Craigslist advertisements for “Two Men and a Van” to help you move furniture? The new version of those is going to be the two workers with the robotic stair-climbing mule. They’ll help city dwellers move from apartment to apartment, with one worker upstairs loading the donkey and another downstairs offloading it. It certainly will take a long time for the robotic economy to replace every little niche.

Finally, the fifth strategy is “step forward”. Write the software that puts your friends and neighbors out of work!

Writing this AI will probably be quite the growth industry for years to come. Unfortunately, it’s a pretty specialized type of programming. And even more unfortunately, there are plenty of programmers in other specialties whose jobs are starting to disappear. For example, setting up a website for a company used to be quite a labor-intensive and remunerative gig, but now there are plenty of automated suites that do the lions share of that, leaving only a job for the rarer “stepped-up” or “stepped-in” person to finish the job. There’s going to be plenty of competition in software field, too, as the simpler jobs are automated away.

What you’ve undoubtedly spotted in those five categories is obvious: while there will still be jobs in existence — and even some new ones — the numbers just won’t add up. When tens or hundreds of thousands of people in a field find their jobs being de-skilled or simply eliminated, the competition for those that remain will be nasty. (Which will drive wages down, ironically.)

There’s a lot more in Ford’s book. I really recommend it.

(Or, if you’re already mostly convinced and plan on skipping it, check out this clever and snappy fifteen-minute video, especially the portion at 3:31, on “luddite horses”.)

One thing I want to point out that he got somewhat mostly wrong, though, is in his portion on Artificial General Intelligence, or AGI. It is common for non-specialists to engage in inappropriate metaphorical thinking when talking about AI and robots. The overwhelmingly vast majority of AI and robots that we’re seeing, or will see for a long time, is functional AI — it was designed to fulfill a specific productive function. That is radically and fundamentally different than the research going into AGI, which has the goal of creating software that is as flexible and cognitively complex as the human mind — generalized intelligence.

Just because they’re both computer programs doesn’t mean that they have much in common. Both IBM’s Jeopardy-winning Watson and Google’s autonomous driving software are software programs that run on computers, but if you asked Watson to drive your car, or quizzed one of Google cars with a Jeopardy question, you’ll get no satisfaction. That might seem obvious, but far too often the end-product of AGI is magically given all the skills of any software program ever written. Ford, for example, says on page 232, “A thinking machine would, of course, continue to enjoy all the advantages that computers currently have, including the ability to calculate and access information at speeds that would be incomprehensible for us.” You really should pretty much ignore chapter 9.

Chapter 10, on the other hand, is crucial. The coming century is going to be bad enough with all that Climate Change brouhaha, without the world trying to figure out how an economy works without many or most people having jobs. Science fiction authors have been forecasting dystopian futures for a long time (the one lying behind the story in Peter Watts’ Rifters trilogy is especially harrowing), and we’re really going to want to avoid that. You’ll quickly note that raising the minimum wage doesn’t help — in fact, it creates incentives to automate that much more quickly. Plans that provide a guaranteed minimum income make more sense, although anyone familiar with the political climate in the United States won’t give that much chance of happening.

Frankly, I’ve been telling anyone I care about who has kids to make sure they’ve got the know-how and land to garden, but I’m pretty sure I’m considered an alarmist.

We’ll see.


Previous updates:

Update August 2015 —

Check out Who Owns the Robot in Your Future Work Life? , from the Pacific Standard magazine. This is part of a series of news essays concerning the Future of Work.

Update October, 2015 —

And the New York Times has a nice article on how AI will supplant auditors in searching for tax evasion: Computer Scientists Wield Artificial Intelligence to Battle Tax Evasion

Elon Musk's Tesla car company are quietly being designed to work as fully autonomous vehicles. Check out the analysis at Elon Musk’s Sleight of Hand.

Update later October 2015—

Something pretty close to the top end of the human cognitive spectrum might be the skill of seeking a pattern in a mass of chaotic data. Oh, sorry — that's another trick a computer seems to be able to do much more easily than us. See System that replaces human intuition with algorithms outperforms human teams.

Profile Image for Clif Hostetler.
1,106 reviews748 followers
February 6, 2017
The premise of Rise of the Robots is simple: technology is accelerating so rapidly that automation is on the verge of taking over not just straight-forward physically oriented jobs but also "brain power" jobs as well in such fields as law, healthcare, journalism, engineering, and computer programming.

Similar sorts of warnings have been around since the time of the Luddites. So it's easy to disregard these warnings as one more dystopian prediction of the technological future (e.g. Where's the flying car we've been promised for so many years?). The haunting worry is that history is not always an accurate predictor of the future. Just because civilization survived the industrial revolution and the information technology revolution—so far—doesn't prove that the future will be pleasant.

The author, Martin Ford, makes a convincing case that this time is different. His proof? Economic trends indicate that the jobless future is already occurring. The inflation adjusted average salary of the American worker has not increased since 1973. The only reason household income has fared better is that women entered the work force in the years since then. Recovery from each recession has gotten slower and less complete. Long term unemployment is rising, and wealth disparity is rising. When businesses recover from recessions now they often do not hire back as many people as they laid off because they have means to do the same work with fewer people thanks to technology. Martin Ford maintains that these are all early trends supporting the book's observations about the affect of technology on the future of the world's economy.

Half of this book is about economics, and the other half is about advances in computer/robotic technology. Together they provide the convincing message for the reader that yes, this time is different. Any job that has a smidgen of routine or predictability is fair game for computer/robotic technology. Even jobs that appear to require creative input are fair game. (e.g. There's a computer program that can write articles about sporting events that includes human interest stories complete with interview quotations.) The logical conclusion is that massive unemployment and income inequality are very real possibilities as more and more jobs traditionally performed by people disappear.

If middle-class jobs keep disappearing as wealth piles up at the top, Martin Ford predicts, economic mobility will “become nonexistent”: “The plutocracy would shut itself away in gated communities or in elite cities, perhaps guarded by autonomous military robots and drones.”

In “Rise of the Robots,” Ford argues that a society based on luxury consumption by a tiny elite is not economically viable. More to the point, it is not biologically viable. Humans, unlike robots, need food, health care and the sense of usefulness often supplied by jobs or other forms of work.

Ford does propose a solution: a guaranteed annual minimum income combined with proper incentives to encourage work if available. But no amount of money can compensate for the loss of meaningful engagement.

The following is not from the book:
Our only hope is that computers and robots of the future will be so extremely intelligent that they will be able to develop a satisfactory solution to let humans feel as though their lives have a purpose. Maybe the robots can be equipped with a crank handle which will give a human operator something to turn while the work is being done by the robot.
Profile Image for David.
130 reviews3 followers
April 23, 2016
“Rise of the Robots" begins with a survey of the technology landscape – an over-clocked world where change seems to follow Moore's Law – doubling in speed every couple of years. Ford paints a picture of the capabilities of robots and the dismal economic climate for humans that has existed since the mid-seventies: real wages are declining; wealth is being concentrated in the hands of 1% of the nation; half of all college graduates are not finding work that can use their college education; even highly-skilled professionals are being replaced by automation; the top 5% now accounting for 40% of all purchasing; and he asks whether tech firms – which pride themselves on “disruptive technology” – will disrupt the entire system. This is a great question – the entire system is indeed heading for a collapse. But Ford does not seriously explore the nature of “the system” – and he is certainly not looking for serious solutions – only bandaids.

Ford examines the “service sector” jobs left to American workers and refutes the notion that they are training grounds for young workers to learn valuable workplace skills. It turns out, actually, that 90% of fast-food workers are over 20, the average age is 35, their median hourly wage is $8.69, and most of them qualify for welfare programs costing taxpayers at least $7 billion a year. And still the fast-food chains are looking at new technology to replace half of their employees with automation. Ford writes that we can expect similar encroachments of robotics into wholesaling operations, retail, and agriculture. Yet, like men waiting for their turn in front of a firing squad, most workers today already see the writing (if not the blood) on the wall. What Ford is telling us is nothing new.

From the beginning of the computer age, even its creators foresaw the threat of human obsolescence. Norbert Wiener argued in a 1949 New York Times piece that there is theoretically no human task that a computer cannot learn and duplicate. In the Sixties, President Johnson convened a panel to write one of those government studies destined to molder in a filing cabinet – this one about the “Triple Revolution” occurring in the United States: human and civil rights; advances in weaponry; and “cybernation” or cybernetic automation. The report concluded that, without oversight and planning, the “nation will be thrown into unprecedented economic and social disorder.”

But economic planning is for Commies and sissies; and besides, the nation now had an oil crisis, stagflation, Iranian hostages, Sandinistas to fight, medical students to rescue in Granada, and corrupt ex-friends to punish in Panama. The Reagan years marked the beginning of attacks on labor, the rapid ascendency of pro-business advocacy in government – and what in retrospect was a new austerity regime being imposed on American workers. Ford lists seven trends he sees responsible for the misery of workers: stagnant (actually decreasing) wages; decreasing share of the national income by workers and increasing share by corporations (inequality); declining labor force participation (despite women being forced to augment family incomes); long-term unemployment and lack of job creation; soaring wage income inequality; declining opportunity and underemployment by college graduates; and the rise of McJobs and loss of full-time jobs with benefits.

Amazingly, Ford ascribes all these developments to technology. And he feels obliged to explicitly discount three other contributors: globalization (outsourcing and offshoring); financialization (the turn from factories to hedge funds); and politics (trickle down market fundamentalism in Congress and rabid pro-business lobbying from without).

Although Ford's own graphs show a plunge in the percent of manufacturing jobs from a height of 32% in 1952 to a low of 8% in 2012, his discussion centers on the percentage of foreign products Americans buy from foreign corporations. He writes that the plunge in manufacturing jobs began before NAFTA and, hence, globalization was not the cause. However, labor historians might disagree with Ford. Textile workers, for example, remember the loss of their jobs to Mexico in the Fifties; and Mexicans remember the loss of these very same jobs in the Sixties to Asia. Globalization cannot be linked solely to trade agreements and Ford mistakenly labels globalization a modern phenomenon. Even the first economists, like David Ricardo, had it very much in mind.

Ford correctly nails the obsession with profit-taking and the abandonment of job and product creation. However, he writes that it is “important to realize that growth in the financial sector has been highly dependent on advancing information technology.” No doubt the hedge fund guys need their high-speed computers and trading networks. But Ford does not mention that the financial sector's growth is largely the result of reckless deregulation and the invention of questionable financial “products” like the ones that nearly crashed the economic system in 2008 and necessitated massive taxpayer-funded bailouts. These companies, deemed “too big to fail,” were not permitted to reap what they sowed. They were hauled off the edge of the abyss, guaranteed continued rapacious profits, and their CEO's were still remunerated handsomely despite their questionable ethics and performance. For one brief moment the curtain dropped on the wizard and those who did not avert their eyes saw how obscene profit-taking was and how income inequality is actually generated. Meanwhile, the average citizen-consumer – who represents 65% of economic growth in the United States – was left to fend for himself. The recovery plan both parties championed was not only unfair, it was irrational: it rescued the wrong people.

Ford grudgingly acknowledges the political climate that banned unions, attacked worker rights, deregulated businesses, dropped or eliminated taxes on the wealthy, sent an army of lobbyists to Washington, made sure corporate press shills printed op-eds from right-wing think tanks, and foisted all the economic risk on taxpayers and working people. Ford writes that, even in Canada where unions are healthier than in the U.S., income inequality is rising – the implication being that it's not political. But Ford doesn't mention the Tory government of Stephen Harper in the same breath, or the fact that some provinces of Canada (Alberta, for example) are as non-union as the American South.

Ford concludes that information technology “stands alone in terms of its exponential progress. Even in nations whose political environments are far more responsive to the welfare of average workers, the changes wrought by technology are becoming increasingly evident.” What nations is Ford referring to? Are there really any powerful First World nations that do not espouse labor-crushing austerity programs or champion trickle-down economics? The IMF, global banks, the G8, and global trade agreements have made sure the world is safe for Capitalism. Greece is not suffering because of technology.

He moves on to a discussion of comparative advantage in which businesses and nations choose to forego opportunity “X” for a more profitable one, and permit those who can do “X” more inexpensively to do so. Robots, Ford says, mean never having to say “I'm sorry, I'll pass on that opportunity” because they can be programmed to do anything. Ford describes “long tail” distributions, which describe employee/profit relationships. In 2012 Google made $14 billion with 38,000 employees; GM made $11 billion with 840,000. His prediction is that most corporations of the future will have to look like Google, and this in turn will force people out of stable full-time jobs into the “informal economy,” the “Uber economy,” in which people pick up work where they can. Ford cites Jared Lanier, claiming this is essentially the model in the Third World, and that it is precisely what accounts for the erosion of the middle class. But Ford does not describe how a strong middle class makes a nation politically stable. He makes the throwaway point about citizens having a moral right to share in the benefits of technology – especially since much of it is funded or seeded by taxpayers. So presumably the public deserves a few more tech jobs and discounts when buying Tang.

Ford loves factory tours. We are introduced to sportswriting bots, data mining apps, marketing analytics, machine learning, language translation, neural nets, genetic programming, cars that drive themselves, project and productivity management software, AI, complex modeling, smart searching, customer management, online ordering, cloud computing, specialized robotics, and programs that write symphonies. We learn that computer-delivered educational and machine-reading tests have not delivered on early expectations. Medical diagnosis, on the other hand, using massive repositories of case studies, pharmaceutical data, and symptoms, has been a useful tool in the hands of medical specialists. Ford, however, gushing over the possibilities of delivering family medicine by robot, runs off the rails when he advocates “para-medicals” – lesser-trained medical professionals, similar to paralegals, whose job it will be to run the medical robots that talk to human patients.

There is an odd tendency among humans to think up complex and stupid systems, then double down on them by devising yet more complex and stupid solutions to the systems' shortcomings. Ford's is one such example. Another is the predicted use of elder-care robots in Japan – because, Ford says, the Japanese are too xenophobic to hire foreigners to take care of their elderly.

Many uses of technology – like the use of IBM's Watson to diagnose and manage types of leukemia – are lumped into robotics in Ford's book – for example, his mention of glucose sensors for diabetics. If this is the face of robotics, then my old mercury-based thermostat is as well. Both are basically sensors linked to controllers. Google Nest and Google's contact lens are examples of how the company is developing consumer products to enable it to creep into the lucrative medical market. These are new products and, if anything, will put people to work somewhere – likely outside the U.S. But they are, as yet, not robotic threats to human jobs.

Ford's discussion of medical overcharging – $6,500 CT scans and $200 aspirins – does not address the issue of greed. Instead, he portrays these practices as necessary maneuvers to cope with that 5% of medical patients who, he says, account for 50% of all expenses. He teases us that AI software running on a tablet in a doctor's hands will make diagnoses and devise more cost-effective treatments. However, who would not expect the software to cost physicians $1,000 a month and have to run on otherwise standard Android tablets, but costing $5,000 each? Gouging is so entrenched in medical software that it would surprise no one that such an exception for a single AI product would ever be made – particularly when many physicians nowadays are investors in their own labs. Ford proposes creating a single-payer health care system which can mitigate the gouging. He suggests a private management consortium modeled on the old national AT&T phone system – a sanctioned oligopoly. His ideas include auctioning off operating licenses – as if he had never heard of the problems the FCC has run into with bandwidth spectra. But my question is – why? Why is he trying to design a new health care system on the heels of the first one ever created, and one that could be dismantled after the next election? And what does all this really have to do with robotics?

Cars are another story. Self-driving vehicles are almost here, and they belong to two family trees: one is the traditional family car from Detroit, Japan, or Bavaria, plus a host of self-driving and self-parking options; the other is the Google car, a no-frills vehicle that will eventually not even have a steering wheel. Many options for these new vehicles are possible, but Ford sees, eventually, a world of commercial car fleets. For a monthly fee you would have car service, pickup and dropoff capabilities, and vehicles would cease being status objects – simply another commodity like cable TV or high speed internet. These fleets would be owned by companies like Google, Avis, Hertz and Uber. Ford slyly suggests that the changes wrought by driverless cars would be the ultimate in disruptive technology: “Imagine the uproar when Uber's cars start arriving without drivers.” As fleets consolidate, the number of taxi drivers, muffler and brake guys, auto body shops, car dealerships, detailing shops, and car washes will shrink dramatically. As fleets of cars grow, the fleet of auto guys will fade into obscurity – only to be replaced by a much small number of highly-trained technicians in the fleet garages. Ford did not touch on some of the privacy issues of concern with cars today – particularly that cars gather tremendous amounts of personal information on their drivers and can actually be hacked during operation. Or that vehicles will no doubt also become part of our new surveillance landscape.

In fact, the privacy and civil liberties implications of robotics and automation are entirely absent from Ford's book.

Expanding the context in which technology changes are expected to occur, Ford paints a picture of the fragility of the middle and upper-middle class – including the top 5% which constitutes an affluent upper tier, but one easily broken by the loss of two salaries. He discusses debt, education, aging, and labor force participation. The bottom line is: our national prosperity was once dependent upon a healthy middle class, and the middle class is anything but healthy nowadays. Most people already understand this.

When Ford turns his attention to the “Singularity” and the general kookiness of Ray Kurzweil, it's initially an amusing story – until we discover that Kurzweil's pseudo-religion of “eternal life via cybernetics” is widely supported by, and shapes, Silicon Valley. The use of new technology at micro levels – nanotechnology – will create, he writes, chemical and mechanical miracles that will prolong life and function like the alchemist's bowl, synthesizing entire meals from amino acid glop – at least so sayeth the prophets of the future with their billions to spend experimenting on the rest of us.

In his final chapter, Martin Ford takes a stab at creating a “new paradigm” for economies in which, as Sun Microsystems founder Bill Joy puts it, “the future doesn't need us.” In this future, the highly educated are not really needed. Not surprising; they never were. Even today, between 20% and 50% of college graduates are “overeducated” for existing jobs in industrialized countries. Ford questions the conventional wisdom that throwing more vocational education at today's burger flippers will magically create a climate for more technologically-related economic growth. He describes the job market as a huge pyramid, with the technical and business elite at the top – graduates of graduate programs – and not just people with graduate degrees, but people from prestigious universities. The kind of people whose survival would be assured by sticking them in a secure vault in a granite mountain somewhere in case of nuclear war or an asteroid. Ford laughs at the expectation of finding technical jobs for everyone. “The person who would have worked on a farm in 1900, or in a factory in 1952, is today scanning bar codes or stocking shelves at Walmart. […] So, historically, there has been a reasonable match between the types of work required by the economy and the capabilities of the available workforce. […] The conventional wisdom is that, by investing in still more education and training, we are going to somehow cram everyone into that shrinking region at the very top [of the pyramid].” Ford's bleak prediction is like End Times: only a small multitude will be saved during the Apocalypse and make it to heaven. The rest of us are doomed.

Ford makes much – everything, actually – of the speed of technological innovation and sees this as the primary driver of the threat of the working class (or working aspirants). But technology is a very fast but relatively small wind-up mouse in a room with a huge elephant no one wants to talk about. That elephant, of course, is Capitalism. It takes 255 pages for Ford to mention the word – the economic system imposed on people in nations where technology is regularly used against them. He writes, “The progression toward ever more automation is not an artifact of 'design philosophy' or the personal preferences of engineers: it is fundamentally driven by capitalism. […] The only difference today is that exponential progress is pushing us toward the endgame. […] Changing that would require far more an appeal to engineers and designers: it would require modifying the basic incentives built into the market economy.”

If Capitalism is a race for market domination, then a supermarket chain cannot survive its equally technologically-savvy competitors unless it eventually replaces all its cashiers with automated checkouts. Fast food restaurants cannot survive the demand for the cheapest possible “food” unless they eventually replace their humiliatingly-attired employees with vending machines or burger-stamping robots. Mass retailers like Walmart cannot mercilessly crush their competition unless they reduce or eliminate warehouse workers, retail workers, transportation workers, and replace American seamstresses with Bangladeshi children living in shacks and working in fire traps twelve hours a day. But the need to win at all cost exacts enormous social costs – costs that, under Capitalism, businesses and their wealthy owners and investors refuse to pay. This is why, as Ford points out, Social Security is abused as a permanent safety net. This is why most Walmart and fast-food employees collect welfare benefits at a cost of billions to taxpayers – when many of these same corporations are paying no taxes at all. Ford sees the dysfunction. He just doesn't have the stomach to really change it.

So what is Ford's solution – since he seems to think that Capitalism is the only form of economic and social organization? A basic guarantee of income. Hand out croissants to the peasants so they won't revolt. He cites Friedrich Hayek, the ultra conservative economist, who saw this as an interim measure – right before pulling the plug on all social support systems. Ford writes that, without doubt, conservatives are not going to like this idea. I would suggest that neither Libertarians nor Social Democrats nor even Socialists are going to like the idea very much because citizens are completely at the mercy of a government that can “giveth or taketh away” such benefits. Worse, Ford envisions a society of free agents, where everyone is scrambling to “go out and participate in the market.” He thus betrays his own Free Market fundamentalism. He's for the Uber economy. Besides, there is no such thing as an entirely free market. And if the top 1% owns 90% of the nation's wealth, how is guaranteed income really going to help the bottom 99%? The super-rich will still have their billions and their disproportionate access to influence and politics. No, if we are being honest – a monthly allowance is really just to keep the proletariat from rioting.

I have a low tolerance for “timely,” “insightful,” and “pioneering” books on social issues that seriously pull their punches, especially when they ignore the most egregious features of the problem they are examining. “Rise of the Robots” is such a book. I am very grateful to the friend who let me read his copy – and for the fact that I did not have to buy one myself.

Profile Image for Mal Warwick.
Author 30 books415 followers
April 6, 2017
Warren Buffett, who ought to know, recently told shareholders of his investment company, Berkshire-Hathaway, that the development of driverless cars poses a “real threat” to the insurance industry. Buffett cares a lot about insurance, because he’s got billions invested in it. But he might have broadened his concern to encompass the entire economy. Because the emerging application of robotics poses a “real threat” to the future wellbeing of our country and the world. In Rise of the Robots, Silicon Valley software developer Martin Ford lays out the case for that claim in a balanced and temperate way that’s all the scarier as a result.

If you’re tempted to think that this threat will emerge only in the distant future, think again. Take a look, for example, at a May 22, 2015, article written by John Markoff, the brilliant New York Times technology reporter. Markoff explains how research underway at the University of California, Berkeley, is speeding up the development of robotics at an unexpectedly rapid rate. “Roboticists said that the value of the Berkeley technology would be in quickly training robots for new tasks and ultimately in developing machines that learn independently,” Markoff writes. “Machines that learn” represent the Holy Grail of robotics. However, on a contrary note, Markoff explains in a subsequent article in the Times, “A Reality Check for A. I.,” “that nobody needs to worry about a Terminator creating havoc anytime soon.” The article cites the growing consensus among roboticists that machine-human collaboration is far more likely to yield results than a stubborn focus on autonomous, multi-purpose machines.

With repeated references to science fiction as fantasy in contrast with today’s emerging reality in artificial intelligence (AI), Ford cites advanced work in the field now underway both in academia and in companies such as Google. His treatment of the subject is as thorough, detailed, and well-researched as might be expected of the most experienced technology reporter. Rise of the Robots is a solid piece of work and should be taken seriously by policy-makers and technologists alike.

The “jobless future” of Ford’s subtitle is already well underway. As evidence, Ford cites a recent report from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics: “In 1998, workers in the US business sector put in a total of 194 billion hours of labor. A decade and a half later, in 2013, the value of the goods and services produced by American businesses had grown by about $3.5 trillion after adjusting for inflation — a 42 percent increase in output. The total amount of human labor required to accomplish that was . . . 194 billion hours . . . despite the fact that the US population gained over 40 million people during that time.”

Two decades ago the social commentator Jeremy Rifkin wrote a controversial book titled The End of Work: The Decline of the Global Labor Force and the Dawn of the Post-Market Era. Rifkin foreshadowed Ford in predicting that the ultimate impact of automation would be the loss of millions of jobs. In response, he advocated steering jobless workers into rewarding volunteer positions in healthcare, eldercare, the arts, and other fields to remake society in a more humane manner and redefine the role of the individual. Ford’s prescription for the treatment of this emerging disease is far more detailed and more believable, beginning with a guaranteed minimum income, negative income tax, or some other configuration of tax policy to ensure that no one would go hungry or homeless in a world with paid employment for only a favored few.

Rise of the Robots examines the increasing impact of automation not just in displacing unskilled or low-skilled workers but in hollowing out the middle class, putting such well-paid professionals as radiologists and lawyers out of work — a development that is well underway today. However, Ford makes clear that outsourcing to India, the Philippines, and other developing countries is only the first phase of the phenomenon: the repetitive work that has fled overseas will soon be shifted to machines instead, putting Indian and Philippine professionals out of work as well.
Profile Image for Atila Iamarino.
411 reviews4,385 followers
February 7, 2017
Uma discussão bem interessante e embasada sobre automação e o futuro do mercado de trabalho. O Martin Ford consegue deixar bem claro que não tem um limite definido para o tipo de trabalho que será automatizado – até fazer hambúrguer em lanchonete está a perigo – e dá uma boa perspectiva sobre os avanços em várias áreas de tecnologia. É um livro que vai ficar desatualizado em poucos anos, mas por enquanto vale muito.

Um ponto que fica muito evidente é como o processo de substituição já está acontecendo e os salários de boa parte dos trabalhos mais comuns e "classe média" refletem isso, já que quase não aumentaram nas últimas décadas. A discussão que ele levanta sobre o acúmulo de riqueza em poucas empresas e não mão de poucos é bem preocupante. Ele faz uma comparação que ilustra isso bem entre Google e GM, quando as duas valiam cerca de $14 bi, a GM empregava quase 800 mil funcionários, contra 38 mil da Google.

Só achei entediante a parte onde ele discute o sistema de saúde americano, que não tem muito a ver com nossa realidade e se torna mais uma discussão econômica do que de automação em si. Para quem se interessa pelo tema, o Who Owns the Future? e o Throwing Rocks at the Google Bus: How Growth Became the Enemy of Prosperity vão na mesma linha.
Profile Image for Knut.
63 reviews7 followers
March 5, 2017
Martin Ford is a Silicon Valley software entrepreneur and to put it simply, a polymath. He did not without reason win the 2015 Financial Times Best Business Book of the Year Award: Rise of the Robots – Technology and the Threat of a Jobless Future is the first book in the 21st century which succeeds to combine the impacts of technology and economics onto mankind. It therefore rightly deserves to take the book award from the 2014 winner Capital in the 21st century, because Thomas Piketty’s analyses of wealth accumulation is an important building block of modern economics, but only half of the picture. Ford makes it complete and gives us an unparalleled outlook of which scenarios lie ahead.

Ford himself provides a synopsis of his work which leaves not much to add on: Jobs remain the primary mechanism by which purchasing power gets into the hands of consumers. If that mechanism continues to erode, we will face the prospect of having too few viable consumers to continue driving economic growth in our mass-market economy. He shares this assessment of the overall economic development with US billionaire Nick Hanauer, University of Connecticut professor of ecology and evolution Peter Turchin and of course French economist Thomas Piketty.

But Ford also dares to weave the looming unemployment scenario caused by increasing automation into a larger picture, which by some readers like Guardian journalist Jerry Kaplan is perceived as yet another apocalyptic message from robot hell. I can’t understand why Ford’s almost messianic effort to draw the reader’s attention to the probably single most important economic problem of our era, the distribution of wealth and the potential destruction of wealth through cybernation, should not receive a positive overall review. FT’s Edward Luce gives full credits to Ford’s work, but he still concludes his solution to be idealistic: Ford’s answer is to pay every adult a minimum basic income — or a “citizen’s dividend”. There is logic to his remedy but not much realism. My forecast is that cars will fly before that happens. My guess is, that it might be not so long until cars will actually fly.

Rise of Robots takes the reader on a rollercoaster ride through the latest technological achievements in automation, visual and audio recognition, 3D printing, autonomous vehicles and molecular manufacturing. Yes, all we have seen in the Star Trek episodes will eventually be possible. Ford continues his synopsis as such: As this book will make clear, advancing information technology is pushing us toward a tipping point that is poised to ultimately make the entire economy less labor-intensive. However, that transition won’t necessarily unfold in a uniform or predictable way. Two sectors in particular – higher education and health car – have, so far, been highly resistant to the kind of disruption that is already becoming evident in the broader economy. The irony is that the failure of technology to transform these sectors could amplify its negative consequences elsewhere, as the costs of health care and education become ever more burdensome.

Niall Fergusson argued in his 2011 oeuvre Civilization – The West and the Rest, that six novel complexes of institutions and associated ideas and behaviors distinguished the West from the rest and were causal for the Eurasian world dominance for the last 500 years. These killer applications are competition, science, property rights, medicine, consumer society and work ethic. I was always of the opinion that technology as a product of science is a much-underestimated driver of progress and in particular in China the main factor for pushing millions of people out of poverty within a few decades only; even more so if we acknowledge the quasi absence of property rights. I have to admit though, that the consumer society was never so much on my radar, but Ford’s book confirms Fergusson’s thesis that it constitutes a superior pillar of civilization. I believe thought that we will have to ask us in the close future if not now, if there is not a seventh element missing to take our civilizations to the next level. Republican atheist Fergusson is completely oblivious to this element; Ford’s writing is clearly driven by this element, but he does not dare to name it. For the sake of giving this seventh element a name, let’s call it empathy.

Technologists and economists are rational people who are by professional code not allowed to talk or write about the non-scientific or even religious, but as a befriended Buddhist entrepreneur told me recently: we are not only at the tipping point of a technological revolution which will shatter the labor market as we know it, but we are also at a tipping point of how to perceive ourselves. Does man think of himself essentially as good or evil? And can he turn this self-perception outwards to make this world a better place to live in? Economic terminology like access to labor market and access to the consumer society is well understood in spiritual doctrines. The Christian Great Commandment Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself or the ethic conduct of the Buddhist eightfold path call for such economic thinking and behavior.

Ford quotes the liberal economist Friedrich Hayek a society that has reached a certain level of wealth can afford to provide for all. Does this imply that even the godfather of modern liberal economics embraces a basic guaranteed income? Hayek’s term Great Society comes remarkably close to the Christian understanding of the second commandment in particular if paired with his idea of an evolving government role; nevertheless it is not Marxist in its essence. A basic guaranteed income would only provide a minimum material equality, but never an intellectual or spiritual one. With advancing cybernation future governments are enabled to provide such a minimum subsistence. Ford did the maths and argues that it pays for itself. So what do we wait for? That cars fly?

The only question that remains unanswered but is substantially discussed by Ford is which accompanying measures are required to implement a basic guaranteed income. Would large swaths of the population turn into ignorant and obese consumers? Wait, isn’t that already the case in some industrialized nations? We are told that the Peltzman Effect will most likely lead recipients of a basic income to more risk taking and one of the consequences would be more entrepreneurs; something existing entrepreneurs might be afraid of. Self-improvement and enterprise start-up classes might therefore become a viable instruction content; even more so if the devaluation of credentials continues als the author describes.

Living in one of the globe’s largest urban areas, I am especially attracted to the impact of a basic income on rural areas. People would most likely move back into abandoned villages and could both invest their energies into landscaping and self-need agriculture. Urban spaces, which have by many been dubbed death zones in case of emergency, would benefit from reduced economic pressure due to unsustainably high housing, schooling and medical pricing. So, spread the word, in particular in China that Marxism 2.0 has arrived. Technocrats both good and evil minded will love it.

Profile Image for Scott Sigler.
Author 105 books4,072 followers
November 13, 2018
Frankly, this is some scary shit. The robots are coming for ... our jerbs!

I highly recommend this book to anyone under 30 (and especially under 20), as it will be y'all that face the full ramifications of this book's predictions. Hopefully most of us old farts will be retired and enjoying the care of robot nurses and doctors by that time.

Machine learning algorithms are going to heavily impact white collar jobs the same way robotics heavily impacted blue collar factory work. If your job involves repetitive work, it will be in jeopardy of being replaced by "robots." Full stop.

Not even the creative arts will be free of the impact. If half the predictions in this book pan out, we're looking at a permanent and massive shift in our society.
Profile Image for Maciej Nowicki.
74 reviews54 followers
July 11, 2019
The Rise of the Robots shows what are the jobs of the future and reflects many doubts about the future of the job market. People hope and imagine that the current industrial and technological revolution will eliminate some of the jobs, nevertheless, more positions will be created in order to deal with new possibilities and innovations. So, when we talk about technology we talk about the positives in terms of growth and the ability to enhance productivity.

Unfortunately, Martin Ford, the author of the book argues that this time, it is not the case. He is quite pessimistic about some of the things that robotics and AI might bring to mankind. As new technologies and the development of artificial intelligence accelerate, machines take over not only low-skilled work done by people that don’t have a lot of education. Today’s machines are much more sophisticated and capable to climb the skills ladder. As a result, they are a threat to white-collar jobs including many of the kinds of jobs that University graduates take. So, the book presents some challenges that we need to think through. The reality is that technology is going to have a very significant impact on the job market on an unprecedented scale.

Sceptics will point out that this is something that has happened throughout history and that’s certainly true but we’re now getting machines that can, in some limited sense, at least begin to think like people and can take on intellectual tasks as well as manual tasks. This is not about robots in car factories that have replaced blue-collar jobs. It’s about software that can do something relatively routine, repetitive and very easy to automate. Such software is relatively cheap, in comparison to physical robots and scales across all kinds of jobs of the future.

Now, let’s state that such machines and software is developed to enhance our level of life, our productivity and, ultimately, income. This is where historical data from the US provided by Martin Ford are a bit scary. Wages peaked for production workers until 1973. At this time it was 763USD a week (adjusted for today’s dollar). Due to the introduction of automation, wages have been decreasing and productivity increasing. Because of this, inequality has steadily grown since the 1970s. Between the years 1993 to 2010, more than half the rise in national income directly went to people who are the top 1% of earners in the United States.

In other words, if productivity goes up and people directly responsible for this have less purchasing power, the whole gain goes to owners and shareholders. Of course, this is some simplification as we have to take into consideration globalisation and the fact that a lot of jobs are being moved overseas to bring cheaper labour. Nevertheless, further statistics in the book reflect that today, only the highest incomes are actually...(if you like to read my full review please visit my blog https://leadersarereaders.blog/the-ri...)
July 2, 2018
ถือว่าเป็น Non Fiction เรื่องเทคโนโลยีที่อ่านสนุกและเปิดหูเปิดตาดีครับ น่าเสียดายที่บางช่วงตอนดันไปใช้เวลากับเรื่องนโยบายซะเยอะ โดยเฉพาะนโยบายด้านสุขภาพ (ตอนอ่านบทนั้น รู้สึกเหมือนอ่านหนังสือคนละเล่ม) แต่โดยรวมแล้ว ถือว่าเป็นหนังสือแนะนำในยุคนี้ครับ แม้ว่าหุ่นยนต์อาจไม่ได้ผงาด 100% ในยุคเรา แต่ก็น่าสนใจว่าโลกในอนาคตที่มีระบบเศรษฐกิจไร้งานจะเป็นอย่างไร
Profile Image for Bryan Alexander.
Author 4 books292 followers
March 5, 2016
Rise of the Robots is a brisk, accessible overview of current thinking about the possibilities of automation.

Martin Ford takes us through the major issues, technologies, and problems. He begins with several chapters exploring what we mean by automation (robotics plus good software), the importance of developments over the past decade, and the macroeconomic context. Then the chapters advance through the potential impact of automation on white collar jobs (management, professions), education, health care, and consumer spending (and hence economic health). Ford then ups the ante by invoking truly advanced, far more radically disruptive technologies (AI, nanotechnology), before turning to policy questions and recommendations.

Quick summary: Ford sees automation as growing rapidly, and likely to take up a large number of jobs (both working class and white collar) without generating more than a relative few in response. This could lead to massive unemployment, increasing economic inequality, and a new version of feudalism (see below). He doesn't see education ameliorating things, nor is enacting anti-automation policies likely to work at all. Instead, a guaranteed minimum income looks like the best solution, giving people a basic standard of living in lives with little or no work.

The book is curiously restrained. Ford actually resists energetic extrapolation throughout the book. He hedges every development and holds back on big visions. In one chapter he describes his approach as "a very realistic, even conservative view of the way technology is likely to progress" (228), and that applies to the rest of Rise of the Robots. This is very helpful, actually, a nice counter to the more manic visions of Kurzweil et al.

While serving as a sort of textbook or public affairs primer on current affairs, Rise of the Robots offers some thoughtful insights:
...the possibility that rapidly developed automation, deeply integrated into society, might push back research into more advanced technologies, notably AI and nano tech. (248)...
the financial sector's growth "has been highly dependent on advancing information technology. Virtually all of the financial innovations that have arisen in recent decades... would not have been possible without access to powerful computers." (56) And that's before mentioning high speed trading.
...With regard to education, "A college credential may well become less expensive and more accessible to many students, but at the same time, technology could devastate an industry that is itself a major nexus of employment for highly educated workers." (143)
...Ford raises the possibility that widespread automation in China might sap that nation's consumer demand. "China is in a race not just with demographics but also with technology." (225)
...Or this: "professional economics... are completely unable to agree on what I would characterize as a fundamental economic question: Is a demand shortfall holding back economic growth, and, if so, is income inequality an important contributor to the problem?" (204-5)
...the book isn't long on history, but does entertainingly invoke a famous blue-ribbon commission report on the threat of automation to American economics and society - from 1964.

Throughout the book looms a very powerful and dystopian vision, based on some negative possibilities of what could happen if automation rapidly rolls out and removes much employment, while income inequality continues to grow. I think of this as feudalism 2.0:
[T]he mass-market industries that currently power our economy would be replaced by new industries producing high-value products and services geared exclusively towards a super-wealthy elite. The vast majority of humanity would effectively be disenfranchised. Economic mobility would become nonexistent. The plutocracy would shut itself away in gated communities or in elite cities, perhaps guarded by autonomous military robots and drones. In other words, we would see a return to something like the feudal system.. There would be one very important difference, however: medieval serfs were essential to the system since they provided the agricultural labor. In a futuristic world governed by automated feudalism, the peasants would be largely superfluous. (219)

In case that's not dark enough, Ford invokes Noah Smith's amped-up version, which adds powerful, robot-enforced state tyrannies. The book also name-checks Elysium, unfortunately (because it's a lousy film). Ford is clearly not relishing these scenarios, but deploying them as an exercise in futures thinking. They also serve to encourage readers to support alternative visions, namely guaranteed minimum income.

However, the book races along too quickly and too lightly, opening up plenty of holes in its argument. Footnotes are pretty thin and don't use enough academic sources. The section on education is far too fast; I might tackle it in a blog post. Ford tosses off the claim that there's massive abuse of Social Security disability payments (262) without offering supporting evidence. He asks us to consider education a public good, but doesn't want to consider increasing public support of higher ed (263). He passes over minimum income experiments far too quickly (268). It's a pretty US-centric view without enough global attention. And I don't think he's sanguine enough about oligarchy.

So why do I recommend it? Because Ford writes with a great deal of clarity. He brings together most of current thinking on these subjects, which is useful. He avoids extremes, such as Kurzweil's or Nicholas Carr's apocalypses. This is a practical, sober book.
Profile Image for Clare O'Beara.
Author 21 books345 followers
December 10, 2016
This is a top-class, broad look at our use of machinery to do our work in the past, present and somewhat scary future.
We look at how co-operative strategies such as the co-ordinated build, factory, design teams and production line speeded up our work and production.
But today we have better tools to make the tools that make the machines, and we have faster, smarter computers. We are even approaching machine intelligence in some areas, and as I write the chess and go champions have been beaten by computers.

So maybe a chess computer can't do your job. But the skills and speed can do some jobs, and they are on the increase. In the past, when people were freed up from manual work (ditch digging, lino type setting) they trained for higher requirement jobs like accountancy and law, radiology and piloting. The author Martin Ford explains that all these jobs are being shared by machines at present, and if your job involves looking at a screen and clicking, you will be out of work quite soon. Even if you are an accountant or a bomber pilot.
"In February 2015 a parliamentary report to the UK's House of Lords estimated 35 percent of UK jobs will fall victim to automation within the next twenty years."

Medical - computers or robots are taking pharmacy jobs; assessing X-rays as accurately as humans and learning more with every scan; diagnosing strange ailments and providing mobile screens for doctors to make bedside visits in a big hospital without going walkabout. Doctors cost money and health services want to cut back while serving more patients. Computers can work 24 hours, can learn and don't get sloppy or look for pensions and holiday pay.

Marketing - computers are storing data about customers and web browsers to target them for adverts. Like the now-well known case of the supermarket in America which received a complaint from a father of a teen girl; she was getting marketing for pregnancy products from the store. Turned out the store's computer knew the girl was pregnant before she did. Targeted ads are more economical.

Law: much of document trawling, whether house conveying, court material searching or previous case checking, is done by computers. This will increase, because lawyers are expensive. See doctors.

Education. Courses are often offered on line now and some exams can be taken online with verification. Major colleges are disinclined to confer degrees in this way, because they want to charge for taking the courses and limit access to their degrees, particularly to be sure that the person taking the exam is genuine. But more material is being streamed so it can used year after year, reducing need for lecturers, while post-grad students are not needed to help with virtual lectures. And with a reduction in the jobs available, a degree is no guarantee; recession means graduates are serving coffee or stocking shelves, or not in work. Employers can pick and choose, and can offer only part-time work to reduce their responsibilities. Take a second degree? Great if you were not already paying off that student loan. And there are no jobs for people with two degrees either.

Why? Ford explains. Because more work is being sent offshore. Not just garment making or phone assembly. India and China with huge populations have, looking at the bell curve, more highly intelligent people than in the UK and USA. They can work on line. Customers may not be happy with the call centre staff who don't have a clue, but companies would not pay high wages to call centre staff in your country anyway. Fast broadband is responsible, and in the case of financial trading this means moving your office to next door to the stock exchange or buying in to a faster cable than your competitors.

On business share trading.
"Automated trading algorithms are now responsible for at least a third of transactions in the UK. However in the US the proportion is much higher, with some estimates putting it at 70 percent. These sophisticated robotic traders - many of which are powered by techniques on the frontier of artificial intelligence research - go far beyond simply executing routine trades. ... In a 2013 paper published in Nature, a group of physicists ... identified 'an emerging ecology of competitive machines featuring crowds of predatory algorithms' and suggested that robotic trading had progressed beyond the control and even comprehension of the humans who designed the systems."

Scared? You should be. I am a tree surgeon and while machinery does more lumberjack work, I still don't have work, because my domestic customers do not have money. They don't have jobs. Ford tells us that creative jobs will be usurped by degrees but not all of us want to attend a robot concert, so creativity will be the highest type of work required. "The very smartest people will have a significant advantage, and they won't hesitate to look beyond national borders."

I recommend this book to economists, programmers, forward thinkers and anyone who is wondering why they can't find work or what degree to take.
Profile Image for Ken-ichi.
598 reviews563 followers
March 31, 2017
Most of this book makes a pretty convincing case that automation is going to replace most jobs in the next 50 years, maybe less. I think I buy that, and thus I am personally worried, since a good portion of my job as a software engineer is probably automatable (in large part the actual coding I do involves writing boilerplate and figuring out how to integrate third party software, which, in theory, a machine could do quite well, with far less angst; in short, I am already a blue-collar coder, and that's not a good thing). But the main thrust of the book is that we should all be worried, even if our jobs aren't automatable, b/c if most of us can't earn, then we can't buy things like food and shelter, which makes us do horrible things like a) elect pseudo-fascist populist plutocratic rulers to replace the existing elitist plutocratic rulers, and b) eventually eat each other.

Actually Ford doesn't go quite so far as cannibalism, nor did he predict Trump, but the point is things could get bad fast if society doesn't institute some major changes. Which leads me to my list of critiques:

1) The only major change proposed is Universal Basic Income. While I was surprised Brynjolfsson and McAfee didn't support UBI as a way to address rampant joblessness due to automation, I was disappointed it was the *only* arrow Ford seemed to draw from his quiver. UBI is really intriguing, but it also seems really hard, and Ford admits it's not feasible in our current political climate. His feasible near-term suggestions are sort of unsatisfying though, not only because changes like bumping up the Earned Income Tax Credit or infrastructure investment don't seem like they'll do enough for long enough, but because they seem just as impossible in today's political climate as something ludicrous like UBI, no matter what the Cheetoh says about bridges and airports. Aren't there any other big, inspiring ideas we can consider, even if they also don't seem possible?

2) Always Look on the Bright Side of Life! On the one hand, this book's doom and gloom totally affirmed my glass-completely-empty view on life, but on the other hand, something to hope for between treading water on basic income and Mad Max might be nice. Not that I think it's happening, but what would a post-capitalist society look like? If production without consumption is possible, what other kinds of economies and forms of government are possible? Does machine capital have to be owned?

3) NEVER CUT OFF A CHART AXIS! EVER! This might seem minor, but I'm not sure there's a single line chart in this book where the origin represents 0,0. That's like the *first* thing you do when you want to lie with a chart. I get that Ford is generally trying to show trends and scaling an axis can accentuate a trend, but a) if you can't see it with things scaled properly, is it really a trend? b) error bars, people, and c) you just look like a liar, whether or not you're lying. https://fred.stlouisfed.org/series/PR... shows one of the charts he uses, and is, if anything, even more frustrating for its mystifying use of units. Why would 2009 represent 100? What units are the actual underlying data in?! If it's a share, express it as a value between 0 and 1 like a sane person!

4) Speaking of Trump, isn't it kind of weird that Ford doesn't address the political upheaval that comes with joblessness? He hints at dystopian welfare state scenarios, but doesn't articulate the signs that we would expect if we were on that path, like, say, electing a populist egomaniac, or accentuated culture wars as a form of bikeshedding.

On the other hand, Goodreads just gave me this fairly nonsensical recommendation, so maybe the machines aren't quite ready for prime time just yet:

Profile Image for erkamdiyorum.
83 reviews5 followers
May 15, 2019

başlarda kitap çok hoşuma gitti, farklı ve distopik tarzda anlatımı beni kitabın içine çekti. verdiği örnekler akla yatkındı. geleceği düşününce mesleklerin evrileceği yeri hayal edebiliyordum ve esasen bu biraz ürkütücüydü. yine de anlatılanların gerçeğe çok yakın olması kitabı sevmeme sebep oldu. bu noktada kitap bana sık sık "ilerde biz ne iş yapacağız?" , "ilerde parayı nasıl kazanabileceğim?" sorularını sordurdu. çünkü çoğu iş (en azından benim yapabileceğim çoğu iş) makineleşme ile otomasyona gireceği için, bu işlerde çalışan sayısını azaltacaktı. distopya burada başlıyor işte.

kitabın ortalarına doğru ise "bu kitap ne güzelmiş" deme eylemim devam etti. bilimsel verilerle anlatılanlara inandırıcılık katılıyordu ki çoğu yerde verdiği bilimsel örneklerin kaynakçasını göstermiş yazar. yani bir taraflarından sıkmıyor. ama bu evreden sonra kitap benim için yeni bir şey vermemeye başladı ve sıkıldım. yani birden sıkıldım. sanki çok sevdiğim bir dizinin son bölümünde herkesin bir anda ortadan kaybolması gibi bir boşluğa düştüm. o yüzden ortalara kadar güzel, ortadan sonra kitap benim için sadece bitirmek için okuduğum bir "kitap" oldu. zannedersem beklentimi hep ilk başlardaki gibi yüksek tuttum. kitap yoksa ekonomi, bilim, teknoloji, alanlarıyla ilgilenenler için güzel bir eser. ama beni fazla doyurmadığı da bir gerçek.
Profile Image for Miles.
469 reviews153 followers
October 5, 2020
If you decide to read one piece of nonfiction this summer, let this be it.

Martin Ford’s Rise of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of a Jobless Future is one of the most intelligent and important works of futurism to date. Although the book’s title might trigger images of popcorn and 3D glasses rather than a sober analysis of Earth’s economic future, Ford’s arguments are politically balanced, meticulously supported, and cleanly presented for non-specialists. His message––that technological unemployment can seriously compromise the health of world economies––couldn’t be more timely.

Rise of the Robots follows a problem and solution format. Most of the book’s 300 pages are spent diagnosing the problem of technological unemployment, exploring its causes and trends, and explicating the transformative power of technological advances as they relate to human labor. It’s clear early on that while Ford is certainly no cynic, he’s roundly skeptical of the techno-optimism that characterizes many futurist manifestos. Technology will not solve this problem, because technology is the problem; to truly address the issue, we must restructure our political and economic landscapes. In a relentless and data-driven onslaught, Ford eviscerates the received economic "wisdom" that technological innovation will ultimately create enough good jobs to reinvigorate the lives and bank accounts of America's workforce. Ford explains:

"Among practitioners of economics and finance there is often an almost reflexive tendency to dismiss anyone who argues that this time might be different. This is very likely the correct instinct when one is discussing those aspects of the economy that are primarily driven by human behavior and market psychology…These things never really change.

It would be a mistake, however, to apply that same reasoning to the impact of advancing technology. Up until the moment the first aircraft achieved sustained powered flight at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, it was an incontrovertible fact––supported by data stretching back to the beginning of time––that human beings, strapped into heavier-than-air contraptions, do not fly. Just as that reality shifted in an instant, a similar phenomenon plays out continuously in nearly every sphere of technology. This time is always different where technology is concerned: that, after all, is the entire point of innovation. Ultimately, the question of whether smart machines will someday eclipse the capability of average people to perform much of the work demanded by the economy will be answered by the nature of the technology that arrives in the future––not by lessons gleaned from economic history." (60-1, emphasis his)

It’s fair to point out that we also don’t know what new kinds of jobs will be created by “technology that arrives in the future,” but Ford claims it would be foolhardy to assume they will replace the stable employment, middle-class incomes, benefits packages, and retirement plans of the past (for the majority of the workforce). Ford wastes no time laying out the evidence for his case, which can be stated thus: Many jobs are gone, more are going, and when they go, they’re gone for good.

The book describes a host of trends that are leading the developed world inexorably toward less employment and lower-quality employment: stagnant wages, decline in labor’s market share, declining labor force participation, diminishing job creation, increased long-term unemployment, rising income inequality, underemployment for recent college graduates, and an unprecedented shift toward part-time jobs. Each contributing factor comes with its own hard data and logical explanation, and Ford is careful to point out that while these trends are sometimes the direct cause of government or corporate decisions, more often than not they result from market pressures that can’t be directly blamed on any particular entity. Regardless of partisan efforts to direct responsibility for technological unemployment one way or another, it is undeniably a huge problem that is likely to get worse as the 21st century continues.

This is because automation is developing much faster in more economic sectors than previous generations could have imagined. Rise of the Robots gives a detailed overview of the many emerging technologies that are currently replacing human labor or will soon begin doing so: conventional robotics, automation software, IBM’s Watson (now being used in the healthcare industry), MOOCs and other forms of distance learning, 3D printing, nanotechnology, artificial intelligence, and self-driving cars, to name a few. Ford presents a balanced assessment of these technologies, explaining shortcomings and delays in development along with the particular strengths of each. He also debunks the idea that white-collar work will not be swallowed up in the automation revolution, showing that while many of these jobs require specialized education, their day-to-day activities are often routine and therefore easy to automate once the correct software is designed. Additionally, such jobs are increasingly easy to outsource to other countries––often a precursor to full automation (Chapter 4).

The sad truth is that when the right kind of automation comes along, it almost always outperforms human workers, and not just marginally. We can sometimes hybridize human and machine labor, but there is no way to completely obviate the zero-sum game of the market; business owners don’t want to pay for labor if they don’t have to, but workers need access to income and meaningful work. This tense standoff, which has been simmering at least since the time of the Luddites, has reached a new fever pitch in the 21st century. But, Ford posits, technological unemployment is also inseparable from other, far more desirable outcomes:

"The astonishing wealth and comfort we have achieved in modern civilization are a direct result of the forward march of technology––and the relentless drive toward ever more efficient ways to economize on human labor has arguably been the single most important factor powering that progress. It’s easy to claim that you are against the idea of too much automation, while still not being anti-technology in the general sense. In practice, however, the two trends are inextricably tied together." (257)

In other words, if you want the modern bells and whistles, you’re not going to get them without automation. I think Ford is basically correct here, although I’d add that the “relentless drive toward ever more efficient ways to economize on human labor” has also led directly to some of the worst atrocities and explosions of suffering in human history, and it continues to do so. But perhaps Ford can be forgiven for glossing over this nasty truth, because his heart and mind seem to be in the right place. His answer for managing the crisis of technological unemployment? Re-balance the power of modern consumption in favor of the disenfranchised workforce.

Before outlining how Ford thinks we should attempt to do this, I’d like to point out one conclusion that isn’t brought up in the book but that implicitly follows from its premises. With automation and scarcity of traditional employment on the rise, it seems that workers should look to their local economies as much as possible for support and opportunity. By this I mean “local” in the most general sense––any self-selecting network or community, virtual or otherwise. If your main sources of income stem from personal relationships with friends, family, or like-minded community members, those individuals may be less motivated to automate your job or fire you to cut costs. This may require the rejection or revision of truisms from previous generations that discouraged the overlap one’s professional and personal lives.

While “going local” might help some people in some places, this is not a broadly-applicable solution for the woes of the technologically unemployed, especially those in economically depressed communities. Additionally, higher education and skills retraining––”solutions” that have been touted for decades with little effect on the overall automation trend––will not secure stable employment: “The promise of education as the universal solution to unemployment and poverty has evolved hardly at all. The machines, however, have changed a great deal” (250).

Ford’s grand solution is not a new idea, but one that is ripe for revival: a guaranteed basic income. This means that each US citizen would receive a monthly check from the government as a form of income (Ford’s initial proposal is $10,000/year, or $833/month). It wouldn’t be enough for most people to live on without seeking other income, but it would be potentially life-changing for financially struggling citizens. Some people love this idea, and some dismiss it out of hand, but Ford admirably demonstrates why a basic income should appeal to citizens across the political spectrum, and how it could be financially––if not necessarily politically––feasible. The critical nonpartisan point here is that workers are also consumers; without consumption, the whole economy is compromised:

"A worker is also a consumer (and may support other consumers). These people drive final demand. When a worker is replaced by a machine, that machine does not go out and consume. The machine may use energy and spare parts and require maintenance, but again, those are business inputs, not final demand. If there is no one to buy what the machine is producing, it will ultimately be shut down." (197)

The same can be said of the capitalist who “employs” the machine, as Nick Hanauer has pointed out. Since technological unemployment is running roughshod over workers’ ability to generate subsistence income (let alone disposable income), it is in everyone’s interest––including those whose taxes might go up––to use government money to redirect a portion of consumptive power back toward the general population.

Ford goes out of his way to placate proponents of the free market and small government who might dismiss the idea of a basic income as a further expansion of the “nanny state.” In fact, a well-designed basic income would be the opposite––a market-based solution that gives consumers the ability to spend their basic income as they choose. And it would have the added bonus of being a mobile form of income, allowing individuals freedom of movement as well as a financial cushion from which to launch entrepreneurial endeavors (267).

To fund a basic income, Ford would have us selectively shrink or eliminate welfare programs, as well as implement long overdue taxes on carbon, wealthy individuals, and corporations, who would no doubt resist such taxes, but would ultimately benefit from increased consumer spending:

"The total cost [of a basic income] would be offset by reducing or eliminating numerous federal and state anti-poverty programs, including food stamps, welfare, housing assistance, and the Earned Income Tax Credit…These programs add up to as much as $1 trillion per year." (271)

As a general supporter of anti-poverty programs, I’d want to see the hard numbers to make sure a monthly basic income would actually cover the loss of these other benefits. We cannot allow an inadequate basic income program to gut our welfare infrastructure without just compensation, as with the voucher programs that are popular with spending hawks. But given this caveat, I think Ford’s idea is sound. The corresponding reduction in government bureaucracy would be a welcome development, and Ford’s basic income model would be a form of direct government-to-citizen payment that would require relatively little bureaucratic management, especially compared to current welfare programs. Less bureaucracy would also attenuate the ability of private contractors to siphon public money set aside for social programs (259-61). Instead, more dollars would go directly to citizens, who could spend them as they saw fit. This money would need to be carefully scaled with consumer need and distributed with work incentives in mind. For now, we still need a lot of human labor to keep the economy going.

When embedded in a particular moment in history, as we humans always are, it’s impossible to know which parts of our past are most relevant, which present assessments are valid, and which future projections are actually achievable and realistic. Rise of the Robots does a commendable job of identifying a big problem and offering a bold solution, but much subsequent discussion and criticism will be necessary to identify the flaws in Ford’s vision. Even if we did implement a basic income (which seems politically impossible at this point), key questions would remain: Would Ford’s proposed incentives be enough to keep the workforce adequately engaged in the economy? Would the rise in consumption push us over the climate cliff, or might it give people the financial freedom to understand climate change better and perhaps even do something about it (283)? Would getting rid of certain social programs cause an uptick of frivolous consumer spending, leading to even deeper poverty in the long run?

However we imagine these questions might be answered, we can be assured that Martin Ford has done much to improve our national dialogue about how to respond to technological unemployment. For those who lament the present paucity of ambitious “moonshot” ideas (what Neal Stephenson has called "Innovation Starvation") this book should be a rallying point––not a sly pitching of some newfangled gizmo or magic bullet ideology, but a sensible return to economic realities by way of radical changes in our collective thinking and societal structure.

This review was originally published on my blog, words&dirt.
Profile Image for Stephen.
535 reviews155 followers
January 2, 2018
Excellent book to start the New Year off with as it really makes you consider the future.
It doesn't sound too appealing though - mass unemployment, increasing inequality as all but the highest level jobs get replaced by machines and ultimately the threat that we aren't in control at all as the machines become super intelligent. And of course the problem, for the economy that machines might be cheaper but they aren't consumers - liked the story of Henry Ford II and his union leader - Ford: "How are you going to get these robots to pay union dues ?"; Union Leader: "How are you going to get them to buy your cars ?".

Read a few books on this fascinating subject but this is the best on Artificial Intelligence (AI) and how it could change the economy and our world in general. It all could happen much sooner than you think, as well...
September 23, 2018
ชื่อเรื่องทำให้คิดว่าเป็นสายเทคโนโลยีจ๋า จริงๆ แล้วมันสำรวจเรื่องเศรษฐศาสตร์มากกว่า ซึ่งสนุก เพราะมันกระทบกับเราเต็มๆ จากที่เคยคิดแค่ว่าหุ่นยนต์จะช่วยลดต้นทุน และให้บทเรียนกับคนที่ไม่ปรับตัว แต่ผลประโยชน์จากการลดต้นทุนนั้นตกอยู่กับนายทุน (ก็ใช่น่ะสิ) และผลประโยชน์นั้นอาจไม่ยั่งยืน เพราะเมื่อตำแหน่งงานจำนวนมากหายไป ผู้คนก็ไม่มีรายได้มาจับจ่ายสินค้า ผลิตมา ใครจะซื้อ
ฟังดูเชยๆ แต่สนุกดี���ะ ท��ให้คิดอีกมุมว่า เออว่ะ หุ่นยนต์พัฒนา แล้วเราไปอยู่ตรงไหน บางคนแย้ง ก็ re-skill หาโอกาสใหม่ในตลาดงานที่เปลี่ยนไป แต่ความเป็นจริง กลุ่มคนที่โดนคุกคามระลอกแรก มักเป็นคนที่หาโอกาสไปเพิ่มพูนทักษะได้ยากอยู่แล้ว เอาตัวรอดในตอนนี้ให้ได้ก่อน
แต่ๆๆ หากเราไม่อยากทำตัวเป็นพวกเฉิ่ม ชูป้ายไม่เอาหุ่นยนต์ เราควรแก้ปัญหาเรื่องนี้ยังไงดี นี่คือสิ่งที่หนังสือพยายามสำรวจ
���นื้อหามีรายละเอียดเยอะกว่านี้มาก มีกราฟ มีความเห็นหลายๆ ฝ่าย หากอยากถกเถียง ขอชวนอ่าน
Profile Image for Suwitcha Chandhorn.
Author 9 books81 followers
December 21, 2021
เป็นหนังสือที่ดี เสียดายว่าอ่านช้าไป หลายเรื่องกลายเป็นเรื่องที่เรารู้แล้วในวันนี้ (แต่หลายคนที่ไม่ได้ติดตามก็อาจจะยังไม่รู้เนอะ)
Profile Image for Katia N.
586 reviews703 followers
February 16, 2017
The book is a bit patchy in the quality of its analysis. But, I guess, the author is pioneering the new area in a wider public discourse. I could not find any other mainstream, relatively impartial and newer book on the subject.

What I liked about the book was the detailed and clear analysis of the current economic trends, such as the decline of labour share in GDP, inequality, inability of recent graduates to find suitable jobs etc.

What i did not find so convincing was the casual link between the exponential technology development and the depicted future apocalypses (aka feudal society with closed-gate communities and the crowds of savages around it). I’ve read thoroughly the described trends in the automation and the AI. They actually appeared less scary than I thought. For example, I thought 3D printers could in future replace all production lines (silly me). Apparently, they would be used more like our home printers now for small unique objects. The book of course talks about much bigger variety of technological advances and which jobs potentially would go. But overall the scale of the evidence presented is not matching with the bleak social scenario depicted in the later chapters.

The main risk according the the author is the lack of jobs would lead to the sharp drop of mass consumption which would initiate the downward spiral. in the economy. I would argue though, that a bit less consumption would not hurt. We all complain about consumerism and its impact on our culture and the environment. I know that the impact should be monitored, and stopped at some stage, but per se, it is not such a bad thing.

Fortunately, when i was getting closer and closer to the end of the book, feeling more and more desperate and grim, the author came to my help and gave me the glimpse of hope:

“While the machines clearly seem destined to take on more and more work over time, there is no question that the economy will remain heavily dependant on human labor for the foreseeable future.”

I personally think, the inequality, or climate change, or geopolitical issues (how silly is that in the 21st century!) might get us to that bleak feudal reality quicker, unfortunately, if we do not tackle them.

Fortunately, the suggested remedies offered by the author might (if taken seriously) help to solve the current economic issues: universal income; investment into infrastructure; increased productivity (especially for the UK).

He is a bit more sceptical about education - he considers it as a minimum requirement not to fall behind the curve. But imho, the school education level in maths and computer science in the UK and in the US is so primitive that by improving it one would definitely increase productivity.

The book has also brought me some revelation: apparently Hayek was supporting the universal income in some form. There is a proper reference on his work in the book. I just put a quote here:

“A society that has reached a certain level of wealth can afford to provide for all.”

I cannot imagine Koch brothers or their tea-party grassroots quoting this one. Have you ever heard this one quoted in any political debate from the right?

In spite of some subjective criticism above, the book is definitely clever, daring and worth reading.

Profile Image for Rushi.
88 reviews16 followers
December 26, 2015
Rise of the Robots (RoR) was voted as the Financial Time's Business Book of the Year* for 2015.

I found the book to be a disappointment. RoR goes over well trodden territory around automation, the shift of from a labour driven economy to a capital driven economy and the impending collapse of the consumption due to the shrinking middle class. Mr. Ford also provides a brief tour of the issues around the emergence of general purpose Artificial Intelligence** and nano technology. The book concludes with an argument for a universal, work appropriate basic income scheme and a discussion around the system of incentives that would make such a scheme work.

The book provides anecdotal commentary around the decimation of white collar jobs and the emergence of machine learning. It covers well trod territory on the failures of MOOCs and how a degree from a University may no longer guarantee a prosperous middle class life.

RoR comes across as a lament for the golden post-war age of increasing prosperity, high levels of employment and with the middle classes having a secure financial future. Mr. Ford mentions on a number of occasions that we are reverting to a feudal system with a small percentage of the population controlling access to capital and the majority of us becoming sharecroppers in a digital economy. I agree with this bleak prognosis but do not find Mr. Ford's solution of a increasing consumption via a universal basic income satisfactory.

I found RoR to be a sharp, succinct read with extensive foot notes and references. There are few mentions in the book of the sort of challenges facing countries like India that are not wealthy and where a basic income would be difficult to implement. India, like China before it, has staked it's economic future on creating millions of jobs through manufacturing and services. If these jobs are not to materialise due to the "Rise of the Robots", what options remain open? Regrettably, Mr. Ford does not offer much in the way of insight here.

I would recommend RoR as a primer on the type of issues that developed nations will face in the coming decades but find Mr. Ford's arguments for a solution unconvincing and his exploration on the deeper issues around ethics around general purpose AI unsatisfactory.

* FT Business Book of the Year: http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/45ea0f60-8d...

** Nick Bostrom's Superintelligence provides a detailed exploration around the issues behind the emergence of General Purpose AI: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/2...
Profile Image for Quintin Zimmermann.
229 reviews32 followers
August 8, 2017
Rise of the Robots begins and ends like a dry, dense textbook replete with graphs, charts and statistics.

It is the middle part of the book that was the most illuminating and fascinating at times. I expected the author to delve solely into the loss of the blue-collar, menial jobs to robots, only to realise that the white-collar professionals are just as vulnerable to technological innovation.

Narrative Science's Quill software has already automated the creation of news articles for many widely known sites, such as Forbes, without any human input and to such success that the work product is indistinguishable from articles written by the real journalists.

Much like IBM's Deep Blue beat Garry Kasparov, arguably the greatest chess player who has ever lived, IBM's Watson was created to destroy human contestants in Jeopardy! Following which, Watson was re-purposed and successfully deployed in other areas that previously remained the preserve of highly skilled professionals, such as the field of health care as a powerful diagnostic tool in hospitals.

Iamus is a computer cluster capable of composing complex pieces of contemporary classical music challenging the creative talents of performing musicians, again without human intervention.

Innovations like MOOC (Massive Open Online Courses), automated grading algorithms and adoptive learning systems are potential future disrupters of the sacrosanct universities and other higher education institutions.

The bona fide future threat of technology and innovation is a paradox in that it has and will continue to improve production and efficiency in the economy, which in turn will result in massive job losses in many sectors, thereby resulting in diminishing demand and consumer spending, which leads right back to a plummet in production and the contraction in the economy - an interesting conundrum.

Martin Ford does not provide any real, tangible solutions, but then again, that was not the intention of the book as the title attests.
Profile Image for William Kyle Spratt.
49 reviews11 followers
November 23, 2015
Argues for larger taxes and a guaranteed income globally to combat the displacement of jobs due to technology. A lack of understanding of economics drives the author to this incorrect conclusion that taxes will create prosperity rather than individuals be responsible on acquiring new skills to adjust to the shift in jobs available. Author also cites incorrect statistics on productivity and wages and spends little time on the emergence of new technology and what the world will look like. I suggest he read economics in one lesson and then rewrite his book.
Profile Image for Son Tung.
171 reviews1 follower
December 24, 2016
The first book which introduces me to the real advancement + implication/speculation of AI tech for future economy. There is a prospect that not only old jobs but also white collar jobs will be replaced by the rise of more and more sophisticated intelligent machines. The results are serious, its about the widening gap of wealth, work crisis and social inequality.
Profile Image for Don.
568 reviews70 followers
July 22, 2017
Ford sets out the case for worrying about the advances being made in the fields of robotics and AI and the impacts they can be expected to have on society. He agrees that it is a familiar trope – machines replacing human workers, causing unemployment and hardship for those affected – and that the many predictions made in the past for an impending jobs armageddon have not come to pass. But he marshals a large amount of data that tells us that this time it will be different.

Drawing on mainly US evidence (data from the UK, with its recent record in the creating a large number of low skill jobs, seems to contradict the trends across the Atlantic) points to the weakening ability of the economy to generate new jobs. Between 1965 and 1985 strong growth in job creation brought about increases in labour market participation rates in the US from below 59% of the population to over 66% - and this at a time when rapid population growth would have required large increases in the total number of jobs just to peg the number of wage-earners to the low percentage. The rate of job creation became less steep over the next ten years but still saw a rise in wage-earning activity to an all-time high of 67%. Thereafter it began to fall away steeply and by 2011 was heading back to the 63% mark.

The message is clear: a country’s economic growth nowadays comes at as a consequence of processes which are reducing the capacity of the system to provide work for the people who need it. The chief culprit is the advance of technology into realms which involve the automation of many of the manual jobs which had once made up a large percentage of the work that was done in the economy. But Ford adds another factor as a cause for these developments, which is growth in the outsourcing of jobs to workforces outside the national economy. But even this cannot be considered as being wholly independent from technology, since the management of supply chains that extend across the globe is only possible because advances made by computers and their integration into communications networks that extend across the planet. Technology stands supreme as the reason why the system no longer creates as many jobs as it used to.

People who are less pessimistic about the future counter this gloom by pointing out that new technologies might close down old ways of doing things, but they also create demand for new categories of work. The displacement of horse-drawn transport by the internal combustion engine led to the loss of hundreds of thousands of jobs associated with stabling, the provision of fodder, breeding, rearing and training the beasts for toil. In the place of these ancient occupations motor mechanics appeared on the scene, alongside vehicle retailers and petrol stations, as well as the gangs of workers required to maintain roads at the higher standard demanded by car users. Who’s to say that the same thing won’t happen again, with the new technologies giving rise to opportunities for new types of workers.

Ford is well-aware that this line of argument exists but he offers reasons to think that whatever possibilities do exist for the creation of new types of jobs, they won’t be on the scale of what happened during previous waves of technological advance.

The reason is that so much of the new wave of innovation is being driven by innovations in the fields of artificial intelligence – AI. AI is different because it advances the role of machines beyond the performance of relatively simple, repetitive tasks and into the realm of problem-solving, multi-tasking robotics. This is a big difference. Up until now machines have required a human attendant to aid their performance, typically there to step in when an unforeseen element enters into the process which the single-task robot cannot deal with. AI overcomes this limitation by assessing every incident against databases which include hundreds of millions of similar events and from this selecting an appropriate course of action. In dealing with situations like this the human brain works in much the same way, though many times slower and with access to a smaller source of useful learning examples. The AI robot does not shut down and wait for its human master to assume control. It tirelessly assesses the situation before it and immediately comes up with a response that allows production to continue. And it does this without the need for a tea or toilet break, twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week.

This advance moves robot intelligence onto the threshold of what have always been considered to be the type of occupations which require the creativity associated with the human brain. Ford argues that AI has middle class jobs in its sights – potentially everything from solicitors, architects, aeroplane pilots, hedge fund managers, journalists, musicians, nurses, and one-day even surgeons. The machines will even become the inventors of new machines as the algorithms that define their learning curves begin to point to improvements that can be made to subsequent versions of themselves.

Ford makes a stab at describing the type of society and economy that will come into existence if we remain on our present course. The share of national income that goes to the owners of assets, as opposed to the sellers of labour power, will continue to increase and this will speed up trends to greater inequality. The jobs that are available will be limited to those which command such a low price in terms of wages as to make it uneconomical to buy a machine to do the work. Thousands will fight each other for the right to do even these jobs, further driving down wage levels. The sort of society depicted in the science fiction film Elysium might come to pass, with a super-elite so distant from the rest of humanity that they might as well living on super-luxurious spaceships in orbit around the Earth.

However the road to this dystopia might not be quite so straightforward. The economy of the robotic future will confront the problem of selling the goods that are being produced in its super-efficient factories. AI machines do not have ambitions to drive fast cars or fill their homes with fancy consumer goods. They won’t want to spend money going on holidays, or even a weekend at a summer music festival. So who will buy all this stuff? Not the people working at the too-cheap-to-automate jobs who are earning what will probably be sub-minimum wage pay levels. The super-rich owners of the factories can only consumer so much before even they say ‘enough’. High-end luxury commodities will be in demand, but the numbers of people who will be able to consider the ownership of a yacht, the latest sportscar, a jet aeroplane, or even a space ship, is always going to be very limited. The net result is likely to be an economy that collapse of the global economy because of the lack of effective demand to purchase the goods that are pouring out of the AI factories.

This dire outcome could be ameliorated, Ford argues, if a policy like a guaranteed basic income was to be introduced and paid to all citizens irrespective of status. Set at a level which at least ensured that the need for food and shelter were met, the basic income would be supplemented by accessing whatever work opportunities did exist.

Described in this way even this radical proposal sounds like a sticking plaster that might only succeed in slowing down the disintegration of the bonds of social life. With the vast bulk of the population subsisting on incomes too low to earn a tax yield, the burden of paying for this would fall on the small percentage of society who extract a rent on the basis of their ownership of productive assets. In affect this would be the rich paying the poor to buy the goods and services, the production of which forms the basis of elite wealth. A better description of a downward spiral is hard to imagine.

Ford’s range of fixes to what he sees as the looming prospect of a poorer, more unequal, economically dysfunctional society are very sparse. In one sentence he rules out the option of a role for the state in regulating the pace of the introduction of technology on the grounds that this would be interfering in the working of the free market. Adopting the conventional stance that this has tried before and found not to work he gives no further to consideration to any idea that state intervention might be done better this time round. For example, the state could set about scrutinising the basic unit in the economy which is driving us towards tis gloomy future – namely the capitalist firm. As currently constructed, firms are required to compete against one another in an ever-ending competition to maximise profit. It is this imperative that obliges the decision-makers running companies to act in ways that favour one course of action as opposed to any other possibility. If remaining in the race means bringing in robots, then so be it and the devil take care of all the workers whose jobs are being lost.

Suppose that breaking out of this logic became the focus for action on the part of democratic government, imposing on the owners of capital the obligation to take into account wider social interests and effects before taking their cut of the new value that has been created by production? If capitalists could only get access to credit to fund investment if they were obliged to fund, say, three years of retraining for staff made redundant because of technology replacing jobs in the firm then would the rush to AI be quite so precipitous? It would be wrong to interpret this as a ‘Luddite’ measure since it does not involve an absolute prohibition on the introduction of labour saving technology, but rather as a way to ameliorate its potential for social disruption. With the same restraints applying to all labour-shedding businesses, there would be no plea that any one company was being chronically disadvantaged by rules that have to be confirmed with by all. Indeed, if firms continued to seek a competitive advantage over rivals it might come in by way of being best at planning their way around obligations to have regard for the interests of labour, plus whatever other objectives democratic public authorities feel should be met, such as energy efficiency, elimination of pollution, the promotion of an equality agenda, and so on.

The chances are that the honours here would go to businesses that were most in touch with the needs of their workers – cue worker representation on management boards, a positive role for trade unions, etc – and who also have procedures in place for dialogue with external interests, like consumers, local government, educational bodies, etc. AI technology might well provide powerful tools to help manage all these processes, helping to embed the need for beneficial outcomes not just into the profit-making performance of the firm but also in aligning it with these other interests.

Ford paints a very dismal picture of the future and it is difficult to be enthused with the idea that measures like basic incomes will really save the day. His pessimism is fueled by his unwarranted assumption that, whilst everything else can be expected to be upended and transformed in every way, the fundamental unit which drives innovation under capitalism – the profit-seeking firm – will remain the same and ultimately remain in the driving seat. But changing the basic structure of the firm is the very thing that will be needed if all the worst things that might come to pass are averted. Let’s aim at some fundamental re-engineering of things at that level, using when necessary all that the robots can bring to the table, and we will see if innovation and social progress do have to be so closely tied to profit-making and ever-greater increases in the wealth of the already super-rich, and we will then judge whether technological advance really does have to be such a formidable foe of essential human interests.
Profile Image for Gina.
134 reviews11 followers
February 7, 2021
Very informative book written by an author that has over 20 years of experience in computer science. I expected this book to be quite technical and full of latest complicated IT terms, but actually it is not that much. Rather an accessible read. As he has also done an MBA, the author introduces a lot of economics analyses throughout his book. This combination works just great. Moreover, he makes reference to many authors that most probably were in his research list for this book.

What I didn’t like is that he made use of the human’s natural fear instinct a little bit too much for my taste, just like most news channels reporting on “apocalyptic” events. Probably a technique used to become a bestseller back in 2015. This, however, made my anxiety to kick in, unnecessarily delaying my progress towards completion. 4.5*
Profile Image for Mehrsa.
2,234 reviews3,649 followers
December 21, 2018
Just read the second industrial age instead. Though this book is a nice update to that one and outlines the details of the robotics changes, it is shallower in theory and in history and way way too optimistic about UBI (again with the UBI. Bezos is apparently quite convincing in this echo chamber). I didn't care much for the proposals, but it was still a useful overview and also was pretty nuanced in analyzing some of the hysterics around the singularity
269 reviews7 followers
July 5, 2015
I finished this book several weeks ago, and a number of my thoughts are already starting to fade, and the whole is starting to blend into an impression with details no longer sharp, so forgive the vagueness and brevity of the review. (The start and finish dates below are also approximate.)

Ford musters a fair amount of detail on how automation is taking over many industries, and the book is very timely, with a lot of fresh data (as of early 2015). He covers manufacturing, of course, but also construction, healthcare and even higher education (where I work). (It's interesting that, as I type this review, yesterday I was watching a YouTube video about a robotic bricklayer. It seems to do a good job, and one of the things the video talks about is how much harder it is to do that in the outside world than with a robot bolted to a factory floor.)

Ford brings in U.S. Dept. of Labor stats on workforce participation, number of months it takes for job levels to recover after a recession, the share of income going to labor, etc. This is also useful, relevant stuff, and he tries to paint a coherent picture. Sometimes that picture works, sometimes I'm more skeptical. He occasionally veers off from his main theme of "robots will eliminate work" to talk standard liberal political concerns, such as improving education, as if that will help stave off the coming flood of robots.

Ford does not see robots as either an unalloyed good or evil, but as nearly inevitable. To his credit, he is not one of those people who paint an idyllic, work-free future for all; he is deeply concerned about the transition coming over the next couple of decades. Ford is one of the people who believes that a reasonable solution is what is called "basic income guarantee" -- the government gives everyone some social security or welfare-sized check, enough to live on, but if you want to live well, you need an actual job. He even manages to tie the idea to Hayek, who is generally a darling of the libertarian right, and seems an improbable ally. It's an open question whether such a system can find the required political support, and whether it is economically sustainable over the long run.

Ford does address the issue of the possible "Singularity", but it's not the focus of the book. If you've read my Review of Superintelligence: Paths, Dangers, Strategies, you'll know that I'm a skeptic of Kurzweil, and Ford's opinion is pretty much the same, which he covers well.

Although a search reveals he mentions Japan about two dozen times, the book does still feel fairly U.S.-centric. A little more on what's happening elsewhere and especially how the "reshoring" of jobs from developing countries to developed countries would be good.

The book is heavily footnoted; it's 350 pages in print, but probably only 250 of text. Even so, it seems a little repetitive; I spent a fair amount of time thinking, "Yeah, yeah, I get it," as he presented more anecdotes about various forms of disruption. I think it would be better at 20% shorter.

Overall, my opinion is pretty similar to Ford's, so I nodded along with a lot of what he had to say. I recommend the book strongly, but if you've already spent time thinking about this, you'll find lots of supporting data but not so much in the way of new revelation. It does seem like something that would fit well into a curriculum or discussion group on the impact of technology.
Profile Image for Max Nova.
420 reviews172 followers
May 23, 2015
Where Ford's first book was a revelation, his second book is a disappointment. He adds very little new to the conversation with "Rise of the Robots" - for the most part this book is a recycled laundry list of popular news articles about cool startups and technologies that are making progress in various areas of automation. If you've read his first book, The Lights in the Tunnel: Automation, Accelerating Technology and the Economy of the Future or Race Against The Machine: How the Digital Revolution is Accelerating Innovation, Driving Productivity, and Irreversibly Transforming Employment and the Economy, you're better of skipping this one.

A couple interesting points:
- Zero jobs added to the economy from 2000-2010
- Investment accounts for 50% of China's GDP
- Hayek, Linus Pauling, and Myrdal authored the "Ad Hoc Committee on the Triple Revolution" report on weaponry, human rights, and technology/automation as outlined in MLK's final Sunday sermon
- Typical worker pay peaked in 1973
- Ford claims that globalization, "financialization" of the economy, and politics are NOT driving factors in the decline of jobs.
- "The total value of imports from China amounted to less than 3% of US consumer spending"
- "Progress in the human economy has resulted largely from occupational specialization" - and what could be more specialized than a computer program?
- Is opportunity cost an invalid concept for robots/software if they can be "cloned" almost for free?
- We put a lot of effort into securing out southern border to keep out immigrants who could take American jobs, but we leave our digital borders wide open by embracing globalized outsourcing
- The Beijing Genomics Institute is running a study to identify genetic determinants of intelligence - the Western world is very squeamish about studies like this
- Hayek was a proponent of a guaranteed minimum income, as stated in his 1973-79 book Law, Legislation, and Liberty
- Ford suggests that a guaranteed minimum income could result in a revitalization of rural areas where the cost of living is much lower.
Profile Image for Melinda.
974 reviews
May 23, 2018
Seems to me the first part of this book is the better half with all the charts and data backing up Ford's general premise that workers are being replaced by technology and the widening economic gap between the top 5% and everyone else isn't helping. First, robots and automation can do simple, repetitive tasks. Next robots and AI with deep learning capability can connect and communicate with each other; robots can now "learn" on their own, correct their mistakes, and become more efficient. Companies make loads of stuff that unemployed workers can't afford to buy -- remember, we live in a country powered by engines like Walmart, consumer spending making up 70% of our economic mojo. People who are uber-rich can't buy enough stuff. For that, we need the Walmart shoppers. Ford points out that after the 2008 crash, corporations invested in technology and found it good; they made bigger profits with fewer workers. Why go backwards? This accounts, in part, for the wage stagnation we've seen in the "jobless recovery." And it's not just the retail/service sector in danger of losing jobs. Ford relays specific occupations now counting their losses -- in health care, the legal profession, even IT -- that may tank in the future. Education and vocational training are no longer the answers. The chapter on higher education was especially interesting. I would like to know how public high schools should prepare students for this challenge; surely, someone is thinking and writing about that issue. I found Ford's long term and near term solutions a bit far fetched. I can't see the US ever "giving" its citizens a guaranteed income; that just seems to go against the grain of our national Puritan work ethic. But I was glad I read this book and the author made a compelling case for a scary future under the dominion of our robot overlords.
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