Warwick's Reviews > The Rise of the Robots

The Rise of the Robots by Martin Ford
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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.
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Reading Progress

January 26, 2017 – Started Reading
January 26, 2017 – Shelved
January 26, 2017 – Shelved as: technology-and-engineering
January 26, 2017 – Shelved as: economics
February 1, 2017 – Finished Reading
February 4, 2017 – Shelved as: ebooks

Comments Showing 1-23 of 23 (23 new)

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message 1: by Jan-Maat (new)

Jan-Maat 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
cruel, probably too easy, I'm sure somebody who was a reasonable programmer could do that domestically, given your sports report example.

The Emperor Vespasian might have been the first recorded person to be concerned by this problem - he reputedly threw the plans for constructing a labour saving crane on the fire to preserve the opportunity to earn a living for dock workers.

It is a nice problem of the commons type problem - if one company automates it gets bigger profits, if everybody does it then as you say whoops of a sudden no customers left. I'm not sure how exportable the German model is - and there too there has been a familiar drift to
skilled employees held on temporary non-unionised contracts.

Warwick Yes there has, in fact the demand for skilled work has been going down dramatically everywhere. I hadn't heard that Vespasian story before – interesting!

message 3: by Matt (new)

Matt a special-needs gameshow host

What an accurate characterization.

message 4: by Jim (new)

Jim I think we'll be okay, so long as the corporations who build these robots never forget Directive 4:


Trump's gameshow experience makes him eminently qualified for this era, "Bannon, you're FIRED".......

message 5: by T.D. (new)

T.D. Whittle Excellent review, Warwick.

message 6: by Antonomasia (new)

Antonomasia I don't know if Ford mentions this, but even if new jobs are created, it may take a long time for them to be good ones. Victorian employers were able to be notoriously abusive because there was an oversupply of labour for decades following that round of automisation, plus the population increases that stemmed from better food distribution, making a choice of no work or work under terrible conditions.

There are also way too many analyses (of which I'm fairly sure this is one, after all the reviews I've read of it) which look at the automation / employment issue in isolation from climate change and resource squeeze issues, the more obvious ones being the expense & viability of these robotised manufactures in a few decades, also related population movement. But in the last few months I've seen a handful of things in the media that are starting to put them together. I reckon this sort of automation will be a phase rather than the future for many decades to come but that there will be divergent responses to it based on prevailing ideologies, and conditions would get worse in the UK whilst countries with strong welfare traditions will remain comfortable for longer, but both sides increasingly isolationist.

Warwick You might be pleasantly surprised to hear that he pays quite a lot of attention to it, especially in the latter half of the book. His vision of the future is one where vanishing demand for human work intersects with huge population movements resulting from climate change, in a kind of perfect storm. Although the picture is a bit confused, since he admits that automation is also one of the best ways to - for instance - feed vast numbers of people efficiently, or help reduce industry's damage to the environment.

message 8: by Jan-Maat (new)

Jan-Maat problem is that efficiency is a slippery concept, in agriculture highly mechanised, highly chemical intensive agriculture is 'efficient' from a cash in - food out point of view, but highly inefficient if you take soil health and long term sustainability into account then it is pretty woeful.

message 9: by Antonomasia (new)

Antonomasia What JM said.
Plus " automation is also one of the best ways to... help reduce industry's damage to the environment" is basically greenwash given that the problem is making so much stuff and using so many resources for ultimately unneccessary 'nice-to-have' things.

message 10: by Antonomasia (new)

Antonomasia Glad to hear he has tried to examine some of this, though.
I have doubts that the sort of stability and organisation required for this automation to operate well will be around in 50 years time. (Though it's also unlikely I will be to find out if this is correct.)

Warwick Well fair enough, it obviously is intimately related to the problems of overconsumption. On the other hand I think the efficiencies in areas like agriculture are very real, and not just from a cash-in POV. The tech now is specifically all about long-term sustainability and reduced chemicals, as a way of dealing with overpopulation in developing countries – e.g. these robots being developed in Australia which inject individual plants with the right amounts of water and fertiliser.. this reduces chemical use by 80 percent and allows smaller areas to feed many more people, although then again it also puts a lot of farm workers out of work.

message 12: by Jan-Maat (new)

Jan-Maat But such machines inherently are products of and dependent upon an unsustainable carbon economy and reducing chemicals while better, is itself a cash efficiency. Locally inappropriate cropping can be soil damaging as in the recentish floods on the Somerset Levels. In the context of water poor Australia which currently exports a lot of water in the form of agricultural goods (while run off at least stays in the immediate eco-system), it sounds like a cash effective reaction, aimed at continuing a business as usual scenario, to a changing world

message 13: by Jim (new)

Jim Did Ford cover the topic of electricity and fuel use for the robots and machines? And the increased emissions caused by the increased energy use/production?

message 14: by Wastrel (new)

Wastrel Well, the really alarming/exciting roboticisation will not actually be big lumbering mechanical robots, but computers. Given increasing computing power, and increasing communications infrastructure to provide computers with data, it seems inevitable that entire swathes of service jobs, from menial data entry all the way up to professional jobs like accountancy and the law, will eventually be entirely computerised, or at least reduce their human workforce to a small number of overseers.

The optimist argument to me seems entirely unfounded. Yes, last time new jobs were found. But assuming that new jobs will always be found, on the basis of essentially one historical data point, is optimistic to the point of naivity, I think.

When mechanical labour was replaced, new jobs could be found doing things that robots could not do. But looking at the future, it's hard to see what robots could not do. Given sufficient computing power, what jobs could NOT be done better and more cheaply by a computer/robot? Perhaps a handful of things where the whole point is that the work is done by a human? There will probably always be a demand for high-class prostitution, and for paid flunkies. But other than that...

The real question is not whether this would, left to its own devices, happen, but rather (as you seem to suggest Ford is aware) what society should do about it. Ultimately, profits are distributed to labour and capital. Labour is inherently rationed (each person can only do so much labour), but capital can be accumulated indefinitely. So if the value ratio shifts toward capital, then money will tend to be accumulated in fewer and fewer hands. This may make it difficult to sell goods - it may also, more pressingly, result in mass starvation.

What we do about this is probably the defining political question of the coming century - because there are lots of different options. Do we move toward feudalism, with money distributed as alms (or retainers) to the deserving, obedient poor by the ruling barons? Do we move toward a sort of covert, credit feudalism, in which the barons allow the dispossessed to live as though they were free through increasing gifts of credit, in return for increasing beholdenness that extends perpetually and increasingly though the generations? Do we move toward collective ownership of capital? If so, is that through state ownership, shareholder ownership, indirectly through bank ownership, or what? Or do we move toward a system of mass redistribution through taxation and welfare? And, on a social level, if some system of redistribution of capital or money does free the masses from slavish devotion to the need to make a living, what will they actually do all day?

message 15: by Jim (new)

Jim Wastrel wrote: "And, on a social level, if some system of redistribution of capital or money does free the masses from slavish devotion to the need to make a living, what will they actually do all day? ."

grease the robots....

Warwick @Wastrel, yes that is exactly Ford's argument. The techno-feudalism (of the kind explored in science fiction, with a small elite living in closed communities protected by militarised robots) is something he considers a real possibility on a massive scale. But as you say, this is really a discussion about political and economic solutions and not about the advancing technology itself, which, short of very intrusive legislation, cannot reasonably be stopped.

message 17: by Caroline (new)

Caroline Excellent review and comments. I would like to stay informed on these issues. Recommended journals or websites?

message 18: by Miriam (new)

Miriam Warwick wrote: "@Wastrel, yes that is exactly Ford's argument. The techno-feudalism (of the kind explored in science fiction, with a small elite living in closed communities protected by militarised robots)."

And goods delivered by Amazon drones.

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.

Does this take into account the availability of credit lines? Credit card et al debt is a pretty widespread problem in the US now.

message 19: by Antonomasia (new)

Antonomasia But people need some work to pay off the credit

message 20: by Wastrel (new)

Wastrel Antonomasia wrote: "But people need some work to pay off the credit"

Only if they pay off the credit. Theoretically, so long as rich people keep "loaning" poor people money, the poor people don't actually have to ever pay any of it back. [and this is what's happening. The reason personal debt has soared is that differences in incomes between classes have soared, but differences in expenditure have not. Ultimately, this is because the increasingly rich people are spending an increasing proportion of their money paying for poor people to pretend to be rich people.]

Of course, the question arises: why would the rich keep paying? What do they get out of it? Well, an obvious answer is that it keeps the economy afloat, because the rich people are rich because they're the ones both selling and buying. I'd put it this way: as you get richer, you can't actually keep on buying things for yourself because you don't have enough time to spend the money. But if you "loan" money to someone else, to "buy" things from you, the money keeps circulating. You only lose the cost of the massively overpriced stuff they bought - and because the money is circulating, everything costs more, and that increase in prices more than makes up for the real cost of the bread and the circuses. [also, the inflation encourages investment, which encourages actual economic growth]

This seems counterintuitive. Surely we can't just have people who get more and more into debt and never actually have to pay things off, but can just keep taking out more debts to cover their old ones? Except we can, we've been doing that for centuries. That's fractional reserve banking. We all know that if people call in their debts from a bank (withdraw their deposits), the bank cannot actually pay - that's a bankrun, and unless the government steps in the bank goes bust. But they don't normally go bust because we collectively agree not to call in our debts. Similarly, the oligarchs could come to, in essence, use the entire populace as a bank - and a bank that, in theory, is less susceptible to runs, because the debts are divided up into little limited pockets (called 'people'). [This is indeed what financiers were doing, underlyingly, that led to the financial crash].

There are, however, less 'benign' reasons for maintaining the system as well. This is what I was hinting at with a covert feudalism. Effectively, if the rich keep sustaining the debt of the poor, the poor become more and more beholded to the rich. Debt levels become an easy social shibboleth, a reason to exclude people, and allow punishment of malcontents. We're a long way from the point of oligarchs being able to just say "that man looked at me funny - repossess his house!" - so far. But on a broader scale, increasing debt levels allow the rich to exert more political influence by threatening to withdraw funding - whether that's by financiers threatening to "decrease lending" or "move abroad", or by employers being able to force worse deals on employees because they know that employees are restricted by the need to service their massive mortgages and credit card debts...

message 21: by Miriam (new)

Miriam Right. Sooner or later this will catch up with us, but so far companies seem to have managed to ignore the decrease in real wages.

Warwick I fear that assessing the feasibility of Wastrel's comment is beyond my economic expertise (not hard), but the general principles that real wages are plummeting, work is disappearing and capital is gathering in fewer and fewer hands are Ford's real points. The only thing I was trying to say in the review is that this is not really a story about technology, but about underlying economic and political policy (and it's not always clear if Ford realises that). I think making it a story about evil robots and the advance of sinister technology misses the point (however, I work for a company that makes a lot of advanced robotics so perhaps I am inclined to feel that way).

Colin Palgrave How about if we just give everyone a basic wage could that work?

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