A review of Martin Ford’s The Rise of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of Mass Unemployment

Original article can be found here (source): Artificial Intelligence on Medium

A review of Martin Ford’s The Rise of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of Mass Unemployment

Martin Ford, a futurist, Silicon Valley entrepreneur and the author of three bestselling books, is an expert in artificial intelligence and robotics. His works explore the impact that advancing artificial intelligence and other technologies have on the job market, economy and society. In the Rise of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of Mass Unemployment published in 2015, targeting economists, technocrats, policymakers, tech enthusiasts, and the global public, Martin Ford alludes to the possibility of a jobless future.

The author claims that advances in information technology particularly in the robotics industry pose a threat to the economy by making good jobs obsolete. He details that in the wake of massive job automation, a significant number of jobs are poised to be replaced by robots rendering scads of people jobless. Martin Ford argues that unregulated acceleration in information technology will eventually cause a global financial and economic crisis. His assertion is that businesses will reduce investment in human labor, employing very few people, and replacing workers with software and task dedicated robots. Consequently, a big proportion of the population will not be in a position to buy goods and services, significantly affecting consumer markets and causing a decline in business profits. Government tax revenues will also hit the skids.

According to Martin Ford, every job is susceptible to automation. He talks of task dedicated industrial robots being engineered and installed in various industries. Ford writes that one day, soon, general-purpose autonomous robots, which are in the works, will be sharing workspaces with humans, instructing and collaborating on tasks. However, he states that at the moment, the most affected are the fast food and retail industries. The Rise of the Robots points out the existence of robots that make ready-to-order burgers in 5 minutes. Workers are being displaced by machines that have been specifically engineered for food and beverage packaging. In addition, call center and customer care agents are being laid off as businesses seek to automate most of the processes. “Advanced self-service technologies are being deployed across every sector of the economy threatening lower-wage jobs that require little or no training,” he writes.

Ford critics the common wisdom that more education and training is the ultimate solution for unemployment. This is a notion I have always disagreed with. How can it be yet there’s a growing number of graduates with high levels of debt who are unable to find jobs in their areas of expertise. Graduates and non-graduates are settling for factory jobs which he says are currently disappearing across the globe at a rapid rate. Generally, he paints a bleak picture of a future where technological unemployment and environmental impact paralyze the global economy and society.

However, he states that the prospects of a positive outcome are incidental to devising ways of adopting and adapting to the implications of advancing technology. He proposes putting in place policies that ensure people can maintain a basic standard of living in the face of massive unemployment and economic turmoil. His argument is simple — although the top one percent will still be able to buy goods and services produced by the market, a result of income inequality, they can only consume so much and should, therefore, make certain that the middle class is also part of the income distribution.

According to The Rise of the Robots, the robot revolution is on the horizon and machines will soon take our jobs. Well, that’s my take in a nutshell.

I have always been an optimist in the face of advancing information technology owing to the fact that I’m a tech enthusiast who aspires to create tech solutions. Also, I have seen firsthand how advances in technology have changed lives for the better. Well, turns out the future is not so bright after all. Artificial intelligence might be a solution but it also has grave repercussions for the economy and society. Ford drives this message home beautifully with illustrations, well-grounded arguments, and industry-based cases-in-point. He has a firm grasp of the economy, artificial intelligence and robotics and writes in an easy to understand manner. Clearly, his goals are to educate his readers and get those in positions of power to act before it’s too late. The Rise of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of Mass Unemployment easily achieves the first objective.

However, as much as I agree with this book, that we need to be more vigilant and proactive when it comes to accelerating information technology, I find that it dwells so much on the influence that information technology might have on the economy and barely explores possible solutions. While the book is meant to educate and stimulate the reader, which it does, it leaves one in a state of panic. The possibility of a technological singularity and his illustration of a world invaded by aliens (robots) who have no other desire, but to work is particularly terrifying and somewhat unbelievable.

Although Ford puts forward a possible solution, he argues that it’s not politically possible therefore instilling doubt of its viability. Obviously, technology is part and parcel of our ecosystems and the probability of controlling technological advancements is low. Thus, one might come to the conclusion that if the future depicted in The Rise of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of Mass Unemployment is realized, humans won’t stand a chance.

Nonetheless, this is one of the most informative books I have read so far. It is a wake-up call for policymakers, economists and the global public. The author speaks to everyone from the factory worker to the neurosurgeon. He evaluates the impact of technology in almost every industry: medicine, retail, legal, manufacturing, entertainment, and education. The thought of software capable of composing music and digital systems tasked with undertaking routine medical diagnoses is enough to give one goosebumps. Not to mention a computer artist (software that creates art) that aspires to be taken seriously as a painter. Honestly, if anyone would have mentioned software that paints a day before I started reading this book, I would have laughed and dismissed it as wishful thinking. The Rise of the Robots boosts one’s understanding of information technology and opens you up to technological possibilities that you’ve probably never imagined. We’re inclined to think of technology as a solution ascribable to the conveniences that come with it. The Rise of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of Mass Unemployment brings one to the realization that technology is actually a double-edged sword. And at this point, I’m inclined to assume that one edge is sharper than the other. Needless to say, I would highly recommend this book.