Rod Van Meter's Reviews > Rise of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of a Jobless Future

Rise of the Robots by Martin Ford
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really liked it

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.
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Reading Progress

May 25, 2015 – Started Reading
June 2, 2015 – Shelved
June 10, 2015 – Finished Reading

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