Book review: ‘Rise of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of a Jobless Future’

Martin Ford has seen the future, and it doesn’t work. To be more precise, it generates wealth while obliterating demand for work. “Go West, young man”, was the career advice of the 19th century. Today’s equivalent is “get an engineering degree”. Alas, the latter is not as rewarding as the former.

A third of Americans who graduated in STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and maths) are in jobs that do not require any such degree. Up and down the US there are programmers working as fast-food servers. In the age of artificial intelligence, they will only drift further into obsolescence, says Ford.

Though Ford is a software entre­preneur, it is easy to dismiss his prognosis as the rantings of a latter-day Luddite. That is how many responded to his last book The Lights in the Tunnel (2009), which warned of a future in which even highly skilled occupations were vulnerable.

Rise of the Robots is Ford’s answer to those critics. Unlike his first book, which was based on a thought experiment about tomorrow’s world, this one is grounded in today’s economy. It is well researched and disturbingly persuasive.

Ford’s contention is that our current technological revolution is different from earlier ones. Most economists would disagree. Their view is that today’s displacement is similar to the shift from agriculture to industry. Roughly half of Americans were employed on farms in 1900. Today they account for just 2 per cent of the workforce. Just as ex-farm labourers found work in the factories, so laid-off manufacturing workers were re-employed in the service industries. The IT revolution will be no different, economists say. It is all part of the natural cycle of creative destruction.

Ford finds two big holes in this Panglossian outlook. In contrast to earlier disruptions, which affected particular sectors of the economy, the effects of today’s revolution are “general-purpose”. From janitors to surgeons, virtually no jobs will be immune. Whether you are training to be an airline pilot, a retail assistant, a lawyer or a financial trader, labour-saving techno­logy is whittling your numbers — in some cases drastically so. In 2000, financial services employed 150,000 people in New York. By 2013 that had dropped to 100,000. Over the same time, Wall Street’s profits have soared. Up to 70 per cent of all equity trades are now executed by algorithms.

Or take social media. In 2006, Google bought YouTube for $1.65bn. It had 65 employees. The price amounted to $25m per employee. In 2012, Facebook bought Instagram, which had 13 employees, for $1bn. That came to $77m per employee. In 2014, it bought Whats­App, with 55 employees, for $19bn, at a staggering $345m per employee.

Such riches are little comfort to the thousands of engineers who cannot find work. Facebook’s data servers are now managed by Cyborg, a software programme. It requires one human technician for every 20,000 computers. Almost any job that involves sitting in front of a screen and manipulating information is either disappearing, or will do soon. Offshore workers in India are just as vulnerable as their counterparts in the west. China is the fastest- growing market for robots. No human can compete with the relentlessly falling costs of automation. Software can now drive cars and mark student essays.

But it is Ford’s second point that is the clincher. By skewing the gains of the new economy to a few, robots weaken the chief engine of growth — middle-class demand. As labour becomes uneconomic relative to machines, purchasing power diminishes. The US economy produces more than a third more today than it did in 1998 with the same-sized labour force and a significantly larger population. It still makes sense for people to obtain degrees. Graduates earn more than those who have completed only high school. But their returns are falling. The median pay for US entry-level graduates has fallen from $52,000 in 2000 to $46,000 today. It has stagnated for postgraduates. Education is by no means a catch-all solution, says Ford. Not everyone can get a PhD. Assuming that highly skilled jobs can take up the slack is “ana­logous to believing that, in the wake of the mechanisation of agriculture, the majority of displaced farm workers would be able to find jobs driving tractors,” he says.

What, then, is to be done? Peter Thiel, co-founder of PayPal, said: “We were promised flying cars, and instead what we got was 140 characters.” He was right of course; Twitter is not comparable to the invention of printing. Yet in another sense, he was wrong. We live in a world where everyone with a grievance wields more power in the palm of their hands than the computers that sent Apollo 14 into orbit. Ours is a super-democratic age. Ford does not believe technological progress can be stopped, nor that it would it be desirable to try. Yet the robot economy is inexorably squeezing our rewards in the jobs market. Ford’s answer is to pay every adult a minimum basic income — or a “citizen’s dividend”. There is logic to his remedy but not much realism. My forecast is that cars will fly before that happens.

  • Dana Garcia

    My copy is already ordered.

  • Icebow

    It’s an unfortunate potential aspect of evolution.

  • Xavier

    1) Every action causes an equal but opposite reaction. Low tech homesteading would become an attractive alternative lifestyle.
    2) Extrapolated, this scenario is as anti-Conservative as it gets.
    3) What is your raison d’être? The world only needs so many artists/drug addicts/unemployed musicians.

    • El Martyachi

      … there’ll be openings in the “bio-diesel harvesting” sector.

    • I suspect we will see your No.1 become a reality, I have been thinking along the same lines.

      Oh, and Solyent Green is people.

  • FactsWillOut

    Malthusian BS.

    • Frau Katze

      It’s already started.

      • FactsWillOut

        They said the same thing about the assembly line, and it had “already started”, displacing all the cobblers and lock makers and so forth. When automation really kicks in, we should see a drastic drop in prices of manufactured goods.

        We cannot even automate manufacturing of ball-bearings, much less cars, phones,fridges, etc.

        When I see a ball bearing that was mined, purified, alloyed, shaped, polished and brought to market without any human intervention (and no human intervention in the securing of the energy necessary to do accomplish this), then I will say automation is in it’s infancy.
        Also, most of the mass-produced stuff is junk, and folk will pay 10x more for quality products.

        Also, other competing technology is being developed, like 3D printing.

        Assembly lines start working: Malthusians scream the sky is falling.

        Computers become popular : Malthusians scream the sky is falling.

        Robots do some assembly work: Malthusians scream the sky is falling.

        At worse, Malthusian thinking is a self-fulfilling prophecy.

        • Frau Katze

          Malthus talked about population growth. Wrong man. You should be accusing me of being a Luddite.

          I worked as computer programmer all my career…I have personally written code that put people out of work. Lots of people, replaced by a single programmer.

          I just bought my copy online, as an ebook. No need for printing it, for shipping it, or mailmen.

          • eMan14

            I was put out of work by a computer program adopted by a company that promised no-one would be laid off. But no-one really believed that.

          • FactsWillOut

            Drastic drop in price, eh?
            I have a 50 000 eBook library, all free, yet bookstores are still thriving, as are printers, and delivery companies.
            Legacy media is indeed going down, and that’s a good thing.
            Code can indeed replace low and even mid level tech jobs, but code cannot learn like people, and new infrastructure or whatever will need new code.
            Things will change, yes, but plants will still grow, water will still flow.

        • Frau Katze

          Not ever kind of work can be automated, clearly. But a lot can be.

          My son, work as an electrician in Kitimat, where they’re building a new aluminum smelter, is likely safe.

          It used to be that automation put some people out of work but created new jobs. And this is still true up to a point.

          You keep talking about Malthus…who warned of population growth, in the 1700s. His point is still true, even if there has been a delay.

          Fortunately, outside Africa, most people are no longer having large families. But famine is a constant threat to the Sahel. I’ve posted on it several times. Malthus was right.

          • FactsWillOut

            Malthus was not right.

            “We” are under no obligation to feed Africa, If they industrialized and used their resources properly, they could feed billions. Rather we should fence it off and let them deal with their own problems.

            Also, Malthus’ assertion that population growth is always exponential was clearly in error.

            Look more closely, and you will see shallow S curves; exponential growth followed the advent of agriculture, then it began to level off, then another spurt with industrialization, which began to level off as well.
            The only reason that a bunch of albino-blood-drinking cannibal savages are still exponentiating is because we (our traitorous leaders, that is) are feeding them.

  • eMan14

    Time to brush up on the 3 laws of robotics…
    1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
    2. A robot must obey the orders given it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
    3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Laws.
    Perhaps a 4th law is required.
    4. A robot may not take the job of a human being if no other job is available to him/her/it

    • Brett_McS

      As anyone with a knowledge of programming can tell you: Easier said than done. Even with only 3.

  • Brett_McS

    Your washing machine is a robot. This has been going on for a long time. It is perhaps why people in advanced countries have fewer children. We sort of know that a large population is not necessary for survival, so it makes more sense to put more resources into a smaller number of children rather than to have large numbers offspring in the hope that some will survive.

  • gainny@gmail.com

    Ford’s first book, The Lights in the Tunnel, is available for free at his website (http://www.thelightsinthetunnel.com/). I read it and found it persuasive.

  • Xavier

    Wait until the drones become sentient:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S0GBeOnxA4M

  • cmh

    this is great news…if i don’t have to go to work i will have more time to loot and burn