Clif Hostetler'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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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.
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message 1: by Caroline (last edited Oct 27, 2015 08:20PM) (new)

Caroline A marvellous review.

I have read several excellent reviews recently about books discussing the rise of robots and artificial intelligence, and watched some very interesting videos too. It's an area that interests me a lot.

Only yesterday in the papers there was an article saying that there is soon going to be a bad shortage of British heavy duty lorry drivers, as many drivers are reaching retirement age, and few young people want to pay the £3,000 it costs to do the relevant training. No mention whatsoever was made in the article about the soon-to-come arrival of driverless cars (& presumably lorries too.) Soon professional drivers will be an extinct species (like cashiers, of which I am one.) Training to be a driver under these circumstance would seem to be madness.

I agreed very much with what you said about not being able to extrapolate from the past. Yes, there have always been Luddites, but I think the level of technology we are being given now is a whole new ball game.

I think a guaranteed minimum income has got to be the way forward in the future.

Clif Hostetler Caroline wrote: "...Soon professional drivers will be an extinct species... Training to be a driver under these circumstance would seem to be madness.

I suspect legal and political issues combined with human nature will slow the rate at which technology will be utilized to replace workers in some professions. Driverless cars raises some liability issues in case of an accident which will make auto and truck manufacturers slow to adopt. Passenger airplanes can takeoff, fly and land now without a pilot, but I doubt very many passengers would want to be in a plane without a pilot. But then again, if the purchase price is low enough people can show surprising fortitude.

If I were young I think I'll be willing to borrow £3,000 ($4,600) to pay for training to be a heavy duty lorry (truck) driver. But I can't promise to pay for damages in case somebody follows my recommendations and it turns out to be bad advice.

message 3: by Caroline (new)

Caroline Ah, all of that was very interesting Clif - thank you! I was especially interested to read what you had to say about driverless cars and liability issues. Also what you said about our attitudes at the idea of a airplane without a pilot. That is so true. It's a big psychological hurdle.

message 4: by Elyse (new)

Elyse Walters Thank you for a great informative review Cliff. Excellent

message 5: by Ed (new)

Ed Excellent review until the last paragraph with your silly suggestion about a crank handle for humans! No more constructive activities for humans in a post Robotic world?

Clif Hostetler Ed wrote: "Excellent review until the last paragraph with your silly suggestion about a crank handle for humans! No more constructive activities for humans in a post Robotic world?"

When I wrote that I had momentarily forgotten about reading books, writing reviews, and posting them on That can be an activity for humans while the robots do the less interesting work.

message 7: by Ed (new)

Ed OK, now I have something to look forward to in the post robotic world! (LOL)

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