Bryan Alexander'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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bookshelves: technology, science, economics, dystopia

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.
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Reading Progress

March 1, 2016 – Started Reading
March 1, 2016 – Shelved
Finished Reading
March 5, 2016 – Shelved as: technology
March 5, 2016 – Shelved as: science
March 5, 2016 – Shelved as: economics
March 5, 2016 – Shelved as: dystopia

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