Book Review: The Rise of the Robots

The Rise of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of Mass UnemploymentThe Rise of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of Mass Unemployment by Martin Ford
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

If your job is any way routine and predictable the chances are that the answer is yes. It’s not just factory jobs that have been replaced by machines, but data analysis, taxi-drivers, and even doctors.

The extensive list of areas & industries where computers and robots are increasing their presence is significant and sometimes unexpected. Even my own industry of journalism has seen an algorithm write efficient (but not exciting) news releases. Computers are increasingly self-learning, self-improving and with the advent of cloud networking, new information can be dispersed at a phenomenal rate – artificial intelligence is improving at a staggering rate.

But what happens then? What happens if the robots takeover? Ford argues that, convincingly, that our economies are already struggling to create sufficient jobs as a result of automation, but if these trends increase what then?

Here’s how it works: at some point in an industry a machine becomes more efficient and cost-effective than a person (this already happens and it happens most where the work is routine & predictable, so it can be replaced by an algorithm). As some companies shift to an automated process they have an advantage over their rivals who then follow suit, leading to a mass shift away from humans.

If that scenario is played out in enough places in enough industries in a generation (without being replaced by new jobs for humans – and that’s not currently happening) then you find yourself with simply not enough people earning enough to do more than pay for the minimum (food & shelter).

So what happens to a mass consumer economy if there aren’t enough people working and therefore earning to consume enough to sustain the whole? At its scariest Ford sees (and you begin to see why) the whole system may be unsustainable.

This is the scenario that Martin Ford explores and disconcertingly it is more reality than science fiction. Ford does a great job of examining the current situation and his projections are generally reasonable and restrained. There are a few chapters that are more speculative but on the basis that currently so is the science – such as nano-technology and the idea of the singularity.

He does attempt what policies can be done to meet this challenge, and considers a universal basic income, changing how the market works so capital is taxed rather than income and a number of other suggestions but the most plausible scenario is that we are slowly suffocating our own economic system. Too wedded to the present system and unable to see a way out – the rebalancing is unlikely to be smooth.

The book slightly fizzles out rather than concluding with something to really hang your hat on. So the book just tailed off towards the end for me. However, for anyone with an interest in future global trends then this is book that must be read.

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2 thoughts on “Book Review: The Rise of the Robots”

  1. JH says:

    I work on a pretty high level in the field of enterprise it architecture. I have seen this trend for at least a decade, and it isnt slowing down. I contribute to it daily actually. All in all, I am not proud it, but i owuldnt have been ale to do much about at any rate, I have contributed to remove maybe 500 potential jobs with relatively simple IT improvements. I am not a genius, and I have used relatively standard tools which have been around for some years. The new wave I see now, thats really going to accelerate the trend. We talking across the board. The next ten years will see more development than the last 25. We have to start having this conversation now. Not when we have social problems beyond the point of no return. This is something we can solve, if we choose to solve it.

    1. Phil Whittall says:

      Thanks JH, that’s really interesting. I think in so many industries these trends are only going to accelerate. I wonder how we can solve it – as you said of your own experience, you couldn’t have done much to stop it, so it has the feel of inevitability. Any thoughts on solutions even in your own industry?

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