Pumpjack Book Reviews

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Book Review: Rise of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of a Jobless Future by Martin Ford

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In a world gone mad, as we sit around our garbage fires eating rat kebabs, those of us who read this book will keep saying “told you so” until we’re driven from the camp into the shambles of society.

In all of those dystopian movies about the future, the introductory voiceover usually explains in a few sentences what led to the breakdown of society. The Rise of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of a Jobless Future is that voiceover, in terrifying detail.

Martin Ford, the author, is a clear-eyed chronicler of our impending economic doom. He examines the likely, probable effects of robotics, automation and artificial intelligence across a variety of sectors.

Almost all jobs are at risk, especially those that are highly repetitive, from fast-food workers (robotic hamburger machines) to drivers (self-driving taxis and trucks), and from retail (kiosks) to construction (3D printed buildings).

“Robotics and self-service technology in the service sector will continue to make inroads, holding down wages and leaving relatively unskilled workers with few options. Automated vehicles or construction-scale 3D printers may eventually destroy millions of jobs.”

And white-collar cognitive jobs are not immune to the effects of AI and automation.

“Organizations are likely to flatten. Layers of middle management will evaporate, and many of the jobs now performed by both clerical workers and skilled analysts will be simply disappear … a start-up company based in the New York City area, offers an especially vivid example of the dramatic impact that white-collar automation is likely to have on organizations. The company offers large corporations an intelligent software platform that almost completely manages the execution of projects that were once highly labor intensive through a combination of crowd sourcing and automation.”

In other words, companies will have software that actively finds ways to remove human labor from the equation, except for freelance “gig-ers” who can be underpaid and have no associated benefits. More and more people are forced to drive Ubers and Lyfts and design logos and PowerPoint presos on Fiverr while looking for better circumstances, but those circumstances are becoming increasingly remote.

“The bottom line is that if you find yourself working with, or under the direction of, a smart software system, it’s probably a pretty good bet that—whether you’re aware of it or not—you are also training the software to ultimately replace you.”

So how can you guard against the coming AI Armageddon, the Robotics Revolution? Companies pay lip service to helping soon-to-be-displaced employees develop deeper cognitive skills to find opportunities in “thought-jobs” that can’t be automated. There are two problems with that—first, college is becoming increasingly out of reach for many if not most, with debt loads reaching the unsustainable point; and two, no amount of education can account for shrinking numbers of jobs. Ford illustrates this succinctly:

“The conventional wisdom is that, by investing in still more education and training, we are going to somehow cram everyone in that shrinking region at the very top [of the employment pyramid]. I think that assuming this is possible is analogous to believing that, in the wake of the mechanization of agriculture, the majority of displaced farm workers would be able to find jobs driving tractors. The numbers simply don’t work.”

Displaced farm workers moved to cities to find industrial jobs and now those jobs are being automated and are disappearing fast, a fact too often overlooked by those who think the free market can solve our problems.

“I find it somewhat ironic that many conservatives in the United States are adamant about securing the border against immigrants who will likely take jobs that few Americans want, while at the same time expressing little concern that the virtual border is left completely open to higher-skill workers who takes jobs that Americans definitely do want.”

It’s not a pretty picture. In a society already on the ropes from wealth inequality, with democratic power largely reassigned to corporate interests, the result of a consumer economy without consumers will be swift and savage.

“Markets are driven not just by aggregate dollars, but also by unit demand. A single very wealthy person may buy a very nice car, or perhaps even a dozen such cars. But he or she is not going to buy thousands of automobiles…In a mass-market economy, the distribution of purchasing power among consumers matters a great deal. Extreme income concentration among a tiny sliver of potential customers will ultimately threaten the viability of markets that support these industries.”

One possible solution? A basic income able to cover the bare necessities of living while not stifling personal ambition. “The bottom line is that, rather than resulting in a nation of slackers, a well-designed guaranteed income has the potential to make the economy more dynamic and entrepreneurial.”

It also has literally zero chance of happening in today’s divisive political climate when even access to health care is viewed with suspicion as some kind of government overreach. And yet failure to find away to make sure the fruits of automation, robotics and AI are more equitably distributed will be our downfall.

In a world gone mad, as we sit around our garbage fires eating rat kebabs, those of us who read this book will keep saying “told you so” until we’re driven from the camp into the shambles of society.