precaf'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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“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.

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